Radio Frequency Identification as an Emerging Library Technology
Mary Helen Copeland
Valdosta State University
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) uses wireless radio technology for tracking purposes. RFID systems have been used in public libraries for several years. This technology is being used to charge and discharge library materials, track inventory, secure materials using anti-theft RFID tags, and sort returned items. This paper will provide some background information on RFID technology, as well as its advantages and disadvantages. RFID can be a great benefit to libraries and patrons alike, although it is an expensive technology to initiate.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has been around for several decades. Originally it was used for tracking farm animals and other livestock. (Erwin and Kern, 2005). RFID uses wireless radio communication for unique identification of people and assets. Over time it was discovered that RFID could be used in other areas such as importing and exporting among other industrial uses. This technology is utilized by different companies for a variety of reasons. RFID technology is used in automobiles, payroll systems, and identification badges. The small microchip inside RFID can store information about a product title, location, and price. The possibilities of this technology seem to be endless.
Librarians are always looking for ways to improve library services for their patrons; one way they are doing this is with the use of RFID technology. This technology is being applied in libraries to charge and discharge materials, theft detection, and materials identification as well as sorting material. RFID technology also has the ability to track patron history and help track inventory. The information contained in these tags can be read without removing the material from the shelf. According to Galhotra and Galhotra (2009) the aim of using RFID technology in libraries is to increase the efficiency, reduce data entry errors, and spare staff to perform more value-added functions.
RFID works with a transponder or tag and a reader. These two units work together to identify the object. The transponder is attached to the object and the reader is stationary. Galhotra and Galhotra (2009) suggest there are four mechanisms of an RFID system. These mechanisms are:
1. RFID tags that are electronically programmed with unique information
2. Readers or sensors to interrogate the tags
4. A server or docking station on which the software that interfaces with the automation library system is loaded. It is also possible to distribute the software among the reader and sensors.
RFID tags are flexible, paper-thin smart labels, approximately 2x2 inches in size; each tag contains an etched antenna and a tiny chip that is both readable and writable and can store vital bibliographical data including a unique accession number to identify each item of your collection (Singh and Midha, 2008). There are three types of tags: “read only”, “WORM”, and “read/write” (Galhotra and Galhotra, 2009). How the manufacturer programs the tags determines what type of tag it will be. The information stored on these microchips is read using radio frequency. In order for tags to be read they have to be within range of the reader. Once the RFID tags are placed inside the library materials they can be scanned when patrons want to check them out.
An important component of this technology is the coupler, which is also called a reader; it is used to communicate between the tags and the server. This reader sends information in two directions. When it reads information from a tag and sends it to the server this is called read mode, and when it reads information from the server and sends it to the RFID tag this is called write mode. These readers are composed of radio frequency modules, a control unit and an antenna to interrogate electronic tags via radio frequency communication (Singh and Midha 2008). Whenever a tag passes a radio frequency field, the information stored on that tag is scanned by the reader and sent to the server. Galhotra and Galhotra (2009) suggest four places within the library to install RFID readers: workstations designed for staff, security gates, self-service stations, and the drop box.
The antenna in the RFID technology is used to produce radio frequency waves that initiate tags as they pass through an activation field. The antenna is the channel between the tag and the reader, which controls the system’s data acquisition and communication (Galhotra and Galhotra 2009). If numerous tags are exposed, the antenna will generate an electromagnetic field that is continually present.
The server is an important part of the RFID technology. It links the coupler and the library’s automation system. The software installed on the server provides an interface between the RFID hardware and the library’s automation system. Once the sever gets information from the reader it exchanges that information with the library’s circulation system.
Although RFID technology is a good resource to have in any library there are advantages and disadvantages to the system. Singh and Midha (2008) list six major advantages to using a RFID technology in libraries. First and foremost is the increased speed of circulation of materials being checked-in and checked-out. Patrons are able to self charge and discharge materials which assist in the speed of circulation. Also, the fact that patrons no longer need to stand in line waiting for a librarian to help with check-in/out is time saving. RFID tags are also extremely readable and reliable, quickly scanning items as patrons move through the circulation area. This alleviates human error in hand scanning and seizes any patron who may have forgotten to check-out an item.
The use of wireless technology gives RFID the power to have high speed inventory control by utilizing only a hand held scanner. A librarian using a RFID scanner is able to scan entire shelves of books in minutes, reading all the materials without having to take a book of the shelf. Using the technology in this way makes it possible to update inventory and identify items not properly shelved in a timely manner. The RFID system may also include conveyors and sorting systems for automated materials handling. Materials can be sorted into categories and placed in separate bins to be shelved by librarians at a later time. Finally, RFID tags have a longer shelf life than other types of bar codes. RFID tags may offer up to 100,000 transactions before they need to be replaced.
Although there are many advantages to using RFID tags in libraries, there are also disadvantages. These may include, high cost, possibility of tag removal, reader problems, reader and tag collision and privacy concerns, just to name a few.
The first issue every library addresses about RFID is the high cost of installation. A reader kiosk may cost upwards of $20,000 plus each RFID tags can be approximately $0.30 - $0.40 per item. Add onto this the fact that it will take a two person team approximately one hour to tag 200 items. So a typical collection of 150,000 may take over 1000 hours to tag (Kieczykowski, 2009). Once all the books are tagged, the tags may easily be removed from the books, CD’s, DVD’s and other items, making theft of these items highly possible. In many public libraries, all items may be tagged with RFID giving the item a barcode, but not all items are equipped with an electromagnetic security tag which will set off an alarm if the item leaves without being checked-out (Butter, 2008).
On the subject of security, there are many people who believe the RFID tags are a way of tracking items to patrons. Also, RFID tags can be read by unauthorized sources outside the library system giving information to unknown sources. The two types of security concerns are the “tracking” of the RFID tag or patron and “hotlisting” patrons. Tracking refers to the GPS and radio frequency ability to track an item or person in possession of an item. Hotlisting refers to the ability for a library or other organization to build a database of items and their tag number (i.e. hotlist) to be associated with the person checking the items out (Shahid, 2005).
Currently, there is a lack of RFID tag standards in libraries. If a library was to switch vendors all the RFID tags would need to be changed, because although RFID are becoming standard, RFID tags and readers are not. The way vendors encode information and the software which processes the information is different depending of the vendor. Most new RFID tags conform to either the ISO/EIC 15693 or ISO/IEC 18000-3 standards which will permit these RFID tags to operate in other institutions. But many libraries have already instituted the use of RFID tagging which do not conform to either ISO/EIC 15693 or ISO/IEC 18000-3 standards and will need to be exchange in the next decade, incurring a huge cost to the library. Although the next decade may bring the price of RFID tags down to the point where it would be feasible to have RFID tags embedded in books and other materials as they are manufactured (Kieczykowski, 2009).
The RFID tags also have difficulties with reader and tag collision. A signal from a RFID tag can interfere with another RFID tag causing a tag collision. This may happen on a reader that checks out several books at once. A tag collision occurs as several tags are signaling to one reader simultaneously. A reader collision is when two readers try to read one tag at the same time. One way to avoid this problem is by utilizing a new system called time division multiple access (TDMA) (Shahid, 2005). TDMA is a system which instructs the readers to read at interval times as opposed to the exact same time. This may also help with exit gate sensor problems. Many times with the exit gate sensors, they are not able to read multiple times or may not be able to read the RFID tags at all. The exit gates sensors may also be placed at a distance too far away from the RDFI tag being read, thus allowing items to exit without proper check out. There may be something impeding the reading of items too, such as the metal layer on a CD or packaging of a DVD.
Some librarians argue that a RFID system should not be put into place until the RFID tags become $0.20 per tag or less. This is a price point in which some libraries feel it would be beneficial before beginning to look at the system (Shahid, 2005). A very important thing to think about in the implementation of RFID systems, even above price or functionality is staff and patron buy in. Not having proper communication concerning a RFID system can cause several miscommunications between the librarians, staff and library patrons. Leonard Hernandez, regional manager of the Lewis Library and Technology Center states, “Dropping the technology off at the branches and expecting the managers and staff to just figure it out doesn’t work.” Hernandez advises open communication between the administration, library management and staff and to offer hands on training when possible. “Once the staff realizes that no one was going to lose his or her job, they were on board with the new ways we wanted to increase staff-patron interaction to provide a higher level of service.” (Kieczykowski, 2009).
This higher level of service will include several ideas such as having more staff available on the floor to assist patrons or as one library has implemented, having a day of only using the RFID readers to check materials in and out, this way giving the staff experience in helping the patrons with the RFDI readers and the patrons will have experience using the readers. Although some patrons may feel cheated by not having a real-live person checking-in their materials, they will now have the luxury of having more staff available to answer questions.
In conclusion, although there are several pros and cons to considering a RFID system in a library, think of all that could develop from the RFID system. Librarians would have more time with patrons and the community as a whole. This could allow for more communication with the public and community programming. Librarians would have the time to connect with community leaders and develop new programs with these partners. They would become entrepreneurs for their libraries growth and development. The Radio Frequency Identification can continue outside the book check-in/out to become a personal library guide, seeking out a particular book, author or genre. Or it may enable a Bluetooth to engage with the RFID tags to browse the shelves without even touching a book (Walczyk and Mohamed, 2009). RFID systems could be the gateway to Library 2.0.
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