Last Tuesday saw the (for me) long awaited CILIP RFID in Libraries conference at the King’s Place close by King’s Cross station in London. Having been asked by CILIP to put together the programme and open the event I was more than a little concerned that delegates would feel they had received value for money. Beyond this I was hoping for some lively discussion and debate around the whole issue (no pun intended) of RFID use in libraries – specifically UK libraries.
From the comments received it seems reasonable to make the claim that almost everyone felt the conference was valuable and relevant. The number that felt there was too much of a technical nature was balanced by a similar number that felt there wasn’t enough – and that’s about as balanced as one might reasonably expect I suppose!
The word “buzz” was used quite often in tweets and emails received during and since the event and I confess it felt livelier to me than in previous years. Maybe there’s more fear around about the future of the profession?
Certainly there are plenty of libraries seeking to find some kind of salvation in the technology. The desire to invest first and ask questions later was sadly still very much in evidence in some of the conversations I overheard between suppliers and their potential clients. Indeed the first question asked at the end of the first session was “How much will it cost?”
How much will WHAT cost I wondered. An answer would have been possible had the question been about Mars bars or even what model of car to buy, but even then some idea of appetite and function would have helped formulate a response. But not about RFID surely? Having prepared myself to answer anything from “why are there three parts to the standard?” to “why do you believe we need to re-examine communication protocols?” I was at a loss. RFID is a technology not a function. How much it costs depends on what you want to do with it.
From there on however, things improved and we were entertained, provoked and educated in equal measure by some fine presentations from stellar performers. The conference review will appear in the next CILIP Update – don’t miss it!
I hope that everyone understood what seemed to me to be the clear message from all sides – insist on the new data standard to protect your investment if you haven’t yet made the jump to RFID; consider migration if you want to benefit from future innovation if you have already.
Next day I was up early and on my way to Denmark – almost the spiritual home of RFID, at least in Europe. Having kindly been offered the chance to meet the architects of ISO 28560 at the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media, I was fortunate enough to have also been given the opportunity to visit two libraries that have been using the technology for many years.
My first host, at Lyngby, was Poul Tørslev-Thomsen. Despite my arriving well ahead of schedule Poul answered all my questions with great good humour and obvious enthusiasm for his topic. Lyngby had been almost the first library in Denmark to install RFID and had “made all the mistakes” already. Nevertheless, despite the pain of being a real early adopter the introduction of RFID had seen nothing but benefits for the library and its users (who were present in considerable numbers for a Thursday morning!).
During the five years they have had RFID Lyngby has replaced security gates, re-programmed tags and switched self-service units as standards emerged and more choices became available. It was interesting for me to discover that Danish libraries do indeed exercise the freedom of choice that using a common data model has given them – one of the outcomes predicted both at the London conference and in the “RFID Alliance” press release.
Lyngby has invested in self-service in a big way. Their automated sorter has two inputs linking to a single conveyor to which no less than 16 “ergo stack” trolleys are connected. Two of the many self-issue machines were being used by two gentlemen even older than me – evidence of acceptance by the public I think, and security gates, originally designed by one company but now driven by technology supplied by another, protected the exits.
This is the Danish library world so often cited by UK librarians as being the exemplar of transformational technology in action. It is vitally important however to remember WHY this has worked so well for the Danes.
Firstly they have had a common data standard almost from the beginning. The Danish Agency for Libraries and Media advised RFID suppliers that they would not endorse any solution that did not support a common standard. Without this endorsement there was virtually no market, and so the Danish Data Model was born. (If only we had a UK Library Agency….)
Secondly, and perhaps only slightly less important, is the fact that 85% of Danish public libraries use the same Library Management System (a statistic supplied to me by Henrik Wendt at Tårnby – my host on Friday). The Danish public library system already allows the public to borrow and return books wherever they please – a development no doubt made much simpler by a more unified approach to LMS and RFID supply.
RFID has certainly made its mark in Denmark though they still share many of the same concerns as do we, over the efficacy of CD/DVD security (although recent changes in tag design are helping), and neither library I visited used stock management devices (a point repeatedly made in London on Tuesday).
There has also been very little done on developing new interfaces to RFID tags. WG11, the group that brought us ISO 28560, has not been disbanded, partly because its members have seen the potential for the technology to play an even greater role in the modernisation of services through new applications and new communication methods. There was real interest in BIC’s recently announced project to re-examine and re-evaluate SIP, NCIP and web services as means of interacting with RFID.
So with the publication of the data standard in January UK libraries at last have the chance to reap the rewards from which the Danes have benefited these past five years. They also have a chance to work together with our European neighbours to build better systems in the future.
Will they accept the challenge and learn how to make the technology work for us?
Or just ask how much it costs?