Considering RFID? Consider This.
by Stephanie Handy
In an effort to streamline library function and reduce long-term costs, many libraries have begun to look to radio frequency identification (RFID) as a replacement for the ubiquitous bar code system due to the increased functionality RFID systems provide in terms of circulation, security, inventory, and other areas of library workflow. RFID is not a new technology, with the first recorded mention found in a 1948 paper by Harry Stockman called “Communications by Means of Reflected Power.” The first proposed use in libraries can be traced back as far as 1998. The very next year, the library at Rockefeller University became the first to use RFID, while that same year the Farmington Community Library in Michigan was the first public library to do so. While usage has exploded, 15 years later, the overall percentage of libraries incorporating RFID remains low.
| Public, academic, and special libraries alike can learn many lessons from those that have already undergone the transition.
Libraries hoping to make the transition must reconsider many workflow conceptions and carefully weigh the benefits of such a system to ensure the functionality gained would meet their needs. Even if moving forward is determined to be a sound decision, a great deal of consideration and planning is required as the implementation moves forward. Public, academic, and special libraries alike can learn many lessons from those that have already undergone the transition.
During the initial decision to implement RFID and throughout the process itself, numerous issues must be given proper consideration. Some of these—such as calculating the overall upfront costs—will be more obvious. Others—such as consortium dynamics—may be less intuitive, if no less crucial, to a smooth transition.
Current figures estimate that less than 10% of American libraries use RFID. However, the rate at which libraries adopt it has recently increased dramatically; the number of libraries across the globe using RFID jumped from 600 to 900 between 2007 and 2009, reaching a total of approximately 3,000 libraries by 2012. In the past, RFID has often been perceived as being primarily geared toward public libraries, but an increasing number of academic and special libraries are finding it fits their own needs. Nonetheless, without adequate preparation or prior knowledge, implementation can be laden with difficulty.
While more affordable than ever, the cost of even a simple RFID system remains prohibitive for some libraries. At the very least, the cost of RFID tags, writing stations, circulation stations, any associated software, a potential server upgrade, and any vendor services must be calculated—none come cheaply. This still does not take into account the functions drawing many libraries to RFID. One portable reader (or wand), which is so useful for inventorying and title searches, might cost a library between $5,000 to $10,000. Additionally, a single security gate easily costs upward of $10,000. However, this is scant in comparison to the cost of an automated check-in system capable of sorting items. Depending on the vendor, a single unit might cost more than $100,000.
Initial costs for RFID tags will include tags for the library’s entire collection (with room for error), but management must also consider the continuing cost of tags moving forward. As new holdings are purchased, they will require tagging (whether by the vendor or by library staff members). While the cost of tags has steadily fallen over time, the library must set aside enough money based on its purchasing trends and material types (as specialized tags for media, such as DVDs and CDs, cost extra).
Whether the library plans to pay a vendor to tag its materials or staff will be expected to do so, this also constitutes a cost, either as set payments or in the cost of staff hours. If library staff members will be tagging materials, schedule considerations will require calculation to ensure library workflow is not disturbed or staff is overtaxed.
A strong argument for ROI may need to be made in the face of these not insignificant costs. In most cases, payoff will require many years. Some libraries—larger academic libraries with vast collections and expensive materials, for instance—face such staggering amounts of loss in stolen materials; however, the security features alone will bring added value. Nevertheless, many upfront and future costs will need to be carefully considered.
While the time required for tagging individual items does not constitute a significant investment, when multiplied by thousands or millions of holdings, the commitment becomes extensive. This holds true even more when including time for pulling, transporting, and shelving materials, as well as correcting errors.
Two main options exist. Management might close the library for the duration of the tagging project. This may not be feasible for many libraries, particularly when holdings are so extensive that the period of closure is likely to last a while. On the other hand, this does free staff to work primarily on tagging, which shortens the process. Alternatively, the collection may be pulled in stages, allowing the library to remain open, only using the RFID system once tagging is completed. The library’s daily workflow will likely be disturbed, particularly if staff members have been tasked with the tagging. As portions of the collection become unavailable, patrons’ ability to use the library may be disturbed regardless of the library remaining open.
Careful attention will have to be paid to the library’s typical workflow, the patrons’ needs, and calculation of the time required to complete the project. In addition, any books not present in the library during the tagging must be tagged once returned, as must newly purchased books. Even when the library hires a vendor to process the books before they are received, time will still need to be taken to verify that they have been tagged correctly. Additional time commitments include the installation of the actual technology, testing, and the training of library staff members before final implementation.
Technical and Security Considerations
Aside from the obvious technical considerations—such as what specific functionalities the library desires—a number of points must be decided. Choosing a vendor should be done carefully and not based solely on costs. Determine how involved each vendor plans to be in the installation and what requirements they will have of the library’s IT department. Perhaps even more crucial, however, is the level of support each vendor is willing to provide after implementation. Glitches are inevitable when working with any new system, and it is important to have a good sense as to the kind of support available, what costs are associated with technical support, and how timely that support will be.
An evaluation of the library’s existent technology is also crucial. Management must ensure the existing servers are adequate or determine if an upgrade (or an entirely new system) will be required to meet future needs. Management will need to coordinate with the library’s current ILS vendor to ensure that the system will be able to interact smoothly (or at all) with any particular RFID system and, if so, determine what will need to be done to interface the systems. Management should also coordinate with the RFID vendor to gauge whether any supplemental software or hardware will be required to ensure the system runs as intended.
Other crucial considerations include system failure and security. If the system goes down, while items can still be circulated using bar code numbers, any security features on item tags will remain activated unless the library owns a backup machine capable of turning it off; otherwise, a patron will set off other alarm systems as she passes through the library. Additionally, it will be vital before choosing an RFID vendor to ensure that the library’s systems are compliant with all relevant ISO standards for security to protect both the library and its patrons. Likewise, management will need to address potential security concerns, particularly regarding patron privacy, such as the potential for tracking or hotlisting by unauthorized parties. Tracking abuses the location tracking features of RFID tags, potentially allowing, by extension, the tracking of the library patron who checked it out. Hotlisting entails tracking a list of item tag numbers with the potential to track an individual’s reading habits. Preventative measures—such as purchasing only short-range tags or encryption, along with a thorough security policy—should be put together before implementation.
If the library functions as part of a consortium, it will be crucial to determine at an early stage how many of the libraries in the system will be undergoing implementation. Whether the move will include all of the libraries at once, a staged implementation, or merely an individual library, it will have extensive effects on workflow after installation.
Obviously, this decision will overlap with other factors—such as cost and staff availability—but it will also affect library function. Any items sent through interlibrary loan (ILL) from a branch without RFID to a branch that uses RFID will either need to be tagged or it will require a different circulation process than items containing tags. This complicates the circulation process for both staff and patrons (as well as counteracting the added value of streamlining circulation processes). Untagged holdings won’t set off the security gates, greatly increasing the risk of loss from theft and negligence (since patrons may check these items out incorrectly or not at all). This also counteracts one of the common arguments for implementation, which is to prevent inventory loss through tag security. With a mix of tagged and untagged holdings, items may disappear quite easily.
However, if all consortium libraries transition, logistics will need to be sorted. For instance, will branches undergo implementation all at once or one at a time? Each branch might tag at varying rates, with the consortium not activating the RFID systems until all branches have finished. If some branches begin using RFID before others, will books sent through ILL be tagged automatically, regardless of schedule? If so, either the branch sending the item or the receiving branch will need to be consistently responsible in terms of staff hours and tag costs. What level of functionality and technology will each branch receive? This usually depends on the budget, the size of each branch’s patron base, and the branch’s relative needs. Management must decide how budgeted funds will be split among the branches, both initially and moving forward.
Education will be vital for both library staff members and patrons. All staff members will need thorough training, but the initial priority should fall on staff who are working in IT and technical services, along with those involved in processing acquisitions or the tagging project. Ultimately, management will need to ensure that staff members are well-versed in performing all system functions, including circulation, renewals, tagging, and any other tasks, such as basic troubleshooting. (One way to prepare may be to create an ongoing list of tasks that occur during a given week and allow staff members to learn these using a test environment.) Most vendors will provide training, but staff members should practice using the new technology extensively before the final transition.
Nevertheless, education does not end with staff. Particularly in branches with self-service, library staff members will need to plan ways to train patrons to use the new system. This might include brochures and other printed materials, training videos on the library website, or signage to guide patrons. Library staff members should also explain the steps they take and educate patrons about the new system even when circulation is being performed by staff. Some libraries may also find it useful initially to assign individual staff members to monitor self-service stations to ensure patrons are not struggling and do not leave without properly checking out all items (alternatively, a staff member might be assigned to check book receipts as patrons leave). The initial weeks, or even months, after the transition will be the most painful, with both staff and patrons adjusting, but with careful attention paid to education, the process will eventually smooth over.
RFID technology offers many benefits, including the potential for greater workflow streamlining and the reduction of inventory loss with highly customizable systems. However, library management will need to carefully determine whether this type of system meets the library’s particular needs based on more factors than cost alone. Even once this initial decision is made, many complex choices regarding funding, technology, staffing, security, consortium dynamics, and other factors will require thoughtful consideration throughout implementation. Any library RFID installation will necessitate careful research and planning with an eye to detail in any potentially affected area of library workflow.
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