RFID in Libraries: A Step toward Interoperability – Lori Ayre

A New Report on RFID usage in American libraries from ALA TechSource has recently been published (price $43 and worth every cent) by my friend and colleague Lori Ayre of the Galecia Group. I was privileged to receive a personal copy in the post this week as Lori has been kind enough to mention me in her acknowledgements.

The report takes an overdue look at the state of the US RFID market for libraries, examining the issues of frequencies, standards and data models and detailing the main uses to which the technology has so far been applied – but also encouraging librarians to think hard about how they might get more from the technology than they have been able to up to now.

Like me Lori has become increasingly frustrated at the relative lack of creativity in the library sector when compared with other RFID markets. Interestingly she sees concerns about privacy as being one of the reasons why suppliers have been reluctant to add more than a simple ID to tags in the past.

My own view is more cynical. By using only the barcode RFID suppliers were able to start selling self-service solutions based on existing applications from day one. By making the RFID tag simply a dumb label it was easily adapted to use SIP and replace the self-service and security units that relied on electromagnetic tape and barcodes. There was almost no new work to be done.

So effective was this approach that many librarians still think RFID is just another name for self-service circulation.

Only now, when the demand for self-service is beginning to slow, are suppliers starting to look at other uses for RFID. Their problem – and the librarian’s problem – is that the way in which most RFID solutions were developed is not conducive to this process.

Even the RFID solution providers recognised some time ago that the proprietary models they had been installing were a ticking time-bomb for their clients. Most early adopters were told that the tags they were installing would be able to be read by any other system. Librarians, with their experience of using barcodes, simply assumed that this meant they would be able to be read in the same way as barcodes. I even heard one early adopter from a university library tell an audience that “all RFID tags work in the same way”. Encouraged by such statements UK libraries embarked on an almost breakneck race to be the first in their neighbourhood to implement the technology.

It turned out that what the suppliers really meant was that they could mostly find a way to decode other supplier’s tags using increasingly complex software to analyse and extract data from each other’s tags. One leading supplier recently took me to task for suggesting that RFID tags are not interoperable (they called it a “myth”). For them the ability to extract a barcode number from a tag is all that matters – for them that defines “interoperable”.

It’s that simplistic view of interoperability – and that narrow view of RFID – that has mostly limited a very expensive and sophisticated technology to the operation of issuing and returning books.

The lack of common data standards is one issue – bilateral development is another.

Lori addresses this issue in her chapter on migration to the US standard. In a key paragraph entitled “Remove Legacy Barriers to Interoperability” she explains just how the way market has/is developing can sometimes work against the ambitions of the librarian.

“There are still potential barriers to interoperability even with the new standard. These come in the name of “enhancements” that might be offered by vendors. Vendors will surely seek ways to differentiate their products now that their proprietary solutions have been ‘end-of-lifed’ with the new standards. These enhancements may appear attractive to libraries that don’t understand that using these enhancements will render their systems noninteroperable with other libraries or other vendors.”

She goes on to say,

“When designing your library’s RFID system and working with vendors, be sure to remain cognizant of the effect of any decisions you make on the interoperability of your system. Moving from interoperable to proprietary puts the library in a dangerous and potentially expensive position (my emphasis) that is probably not worth whatever the so-called enhancements are.”

As new vendors enter the market this situation will only get worse – unless librarians make more effort to understand the nature of the beast they have loosed among the stacks. Smartphone companies will soon be allowing borrowers to use their devices to interact with library assets. The increasing use of data standards makes it easier for new players to enter what has up until now been almost a protected marketplace. What is needed is a framework within which new applications can be developed in non-proprietary ways. Lori suggests that one close to my heart may be the key.

The Book Industry Communication Library Communication Framework (or blessedly ‘BLCF’ for short) offers a way forward but will rely upon the co-operation of ILS vendors to make the idea work. Winning their co-operation will depend on librarians demanding it. ILS and RFID vendors in the USA are busy building the very bilateral arrangements that Lori warns us against. I gave my views on the matter earlier this year.

Why not NCIP or SIP I hear a cry? It’s a simple answer – both are limited to continuing the narrow relationship between RFID and circulation. BLCF allows the technology to develop in other ways – to deliver greater benefits. Until I saw a jewellery warehouse using an RFID tunnel to check-in deliveries no-one appeared to have considered using the same mechanism for checking in books. That was 6 years ago now and still only a handful of libraries have even seen that solution in action.

There are myriad ways in which RFID could be making the library a more useful and interesting environment – as well as improving and accelerating business processes but all we do is more of the same. Lori’s report shows us a way forward and the steps librarians need to take to make that future happen.

Let’s not disappoint her.

More Thoughts on Offline Circulation

Just received the latest copy of Talis News and pleased to see a continuing enthusiasm for RFID and in particular offline self-service. More libraries opting for Talis Bridge Pro in the current issue, joining the serried ranks of public libraries offering 24/7 access to their collections.

One thing still puzzles me about all current “offline circulation” solutions. So far as I am aware none of them, including Talis, offer anything more than simple transaction logging. Talis Bridge Pro also offers simpler system updating on reconnection. Which is great. But one suspects it’s not quite what libraries need.

There is a great deal of evidence in discussion forums (Talis and others), on the RFID lists, and elsewhere on the web that offline circulation is not meeting the expectations of its users. Phrases like “it will literally allow anyone to borrow anything” tend to recur.

Which makes its popularity seem a bit odd doesn’t it?

Academic libraries seem less exercised about this problem than their public library colleagues. Perhaps because underage borrowing is less likely to occur on campus. But shouldn’t public libraries be just a little concerned about that possibility? Norfolk Libraries certainly were, and worked with their RFID and LMS suppliers to use a field in the tags to “flag” non-loanable items. A methodology we hope to incorporate in our use of the new data standard later this year.

Until LMS and RFID companies truly realise that tags are not simply some kind of new barcode label but a means of creating “intelligent” stock (and therefore more intelligent solutions) there is, I believe, only one other way to solve the problem of system downtime.

Throw away your existing LMS and opt for one of the alternatives on offer in the Far East that have been designed from the ground up to use RFID.

Of course solutions like this are completely proprietary and offer no compatibility with any existing systems you may have. In this example they don’t even use the same RFID frequency as that most widely used in Europe and the USA, but it might be dangerous for the LMS market to continue to ignore what they’re doing…

November RFID Conference in London

Very much looking forward to this year’s conference! Interesting to see some of the new sponsors for this year’s event include manufacturers as well as solutions providers. With full interoperability finally beginning to look achievable might we expect this trend to continue?

What will the RFID market look like in a post ISO 28560 world? Will libraries continue to buy their RFID solutions in the same way as they buy their LMS systems – all from the same supplier – or will RFID companies divide into hardware and software providers? Or specialise in particular areas of operation?

LMS providers, at least those on this side of the pond, are also beginning to engage with the full potential of the technology. Axiell, TALIS and Civica have all been talking recently about working more closely with the RFID market and hopefully all three (and more) will attend this year’s conference. The dialogue between LMS and RFID suppliers seems to have finally begun in earnest, something that will ultimately benefit all library stakeholders.

If you have done something amazing with RFID over the last year don’t forget to let CILIP know. There is an annual award for outstanding work in RFID made by CILIP and nominations are invited on their website.

Adventures in the Book Trade (apologies to Dylan)

Last week my attention was directed to a report produced for the Book Industry Study Group outlining an RFID project being developed by Wiley in the USA. I posted some comments on both the US and UK RFID lists on Friday.

My initial interest was in the simple fact that someone in the book trade – other than BGN – was at last considering RFID, particularly since it was clear from the report that the use of RFID in libraries had not been considered at all.

Interestingly (and unusually) while the UK list remained entirely silent, US libraries responded vigorously with most contributors making no distinction between the entirely different frequency and data model being proposed by the trade. Replies, mostly concerned with privacy issues, seemed to disregard the fact that book trade tags – operating at UHF over much greater distances – could not be read by library RFID applications – operating at HF and short range.

There is of course a genuine concern about privacy regardless of which frequency and data model the book trade uses but I don’t see why that it’s a matter that is only of concern to libraries. One contributor was concerned that airport security might be able to detect what books were in a passenger’s luggage (or pocket) by using an RFID reader to detect the ISBN – one of the fields planned for inclusion by Wiley.

Now that’s a perfectly reasonable concern but the real point is that the offending tags (and data) would be present on ANY book supplied by Wiley – whether to a library, bookshop or direct to the client. It’s difficult to see why libraries would want to take any ownership of a problem they can do little about.

Of course there’s also the fact that airport security equipment looking for such tags would detect every item within 30 feet – making it difficult to pinpoint any individual – would also tend to mitigate the possible privacy violation.

The radically different reactions from the two  lists makes me wonder whether it reflects a deeper understanding of the technology among UK libraries. Are UK librarians now so comfortable with RFID that they instinctively understand the issues and are unperturbed, or is the US market still so deeply mired in privacy concerns that every RFID initiative looks potentially dangerous?

Anyone care to jump in?

What’s happening across the pond?

News reached us last week that the latest round of voting on ISO 28560 had been completed with a massive vote in favour of adopting the three part standard.

Only one country voted against adoption of the standard – the USA. It appears that NISO and ANSI aren’t really singing from the same song sheet on this one since ANSI’s reason for voting ‘no’ vote seems to have been a reluctance to endorse the three part standard – on the grounds that, being in three parts, it’s not exactly a standard.

This is of course a perfectly valid view but it is rather confusing for many of us who had believed up to now that one of the main reasons there WERE three parts to the standard was, at least in part, a result of lobbying by NISO.

The good news is that the vote is unlikely to prevent the widespread adoption of ISO 28560 – in all three parts – later this year. I say good news because, although there are holes in 28560 that you could drive a bus through, it is – as I suggest in the latest issue of Panlibus (published by TALIS) the only data standard we have. In addition the UK National Profile – now published by BIC – ensures that those concerned with the effective operation of UK libraries have some guidance to help them get the best from the standard. The next steps – to define how best to use the profile – are being taken even as I write.

Our European neighbours, having had the foresight to adopt a common data standard long ago, are much more relaxed than we are in the UK where the need for 28560 – as soon as possible – is now well understood. The US market, for once trailing behind their transatlantic colleagues, need to make some key decisions about 28560 pretty quickly if they are to avoid the pitfalls that otherwise await…

LIS 2009

I was a little bit surprised to see quite so many RFID exhibitors at this year’s show since most of the pre-match talk had been pretty negative. Whether there were enough visitors to guarantee its survival next year seems unclear and certainly the LMS suppliers that stayed away in droves this year seem unlikely to be returning any time soon.

Nonetheless anyone looking for innovation would have been delighted with the products on offer. Three that caught my eye were the smart book drop from 2CQR, 3M’s remote system manager and Intellident’s smart shelves.

It would be difficult to miss the book drop. In keeping with 2CQR’s already well established use of colour the book drop is a substantial piece of hardware that changes colour faster than a Glasgow traffic light. Items placed in its copious “mouth” are chewed over before either being rejected or swallowed. A kind of half-way house between automated sorting and a simple drop box it offers another way of securing returns in libraries with limited space.

3M were showcasing their new remote management software that enables an operator to see at a glance the status of  all devices connected to the RFID susbsystem. Devices can also be configured over the internet/intranet. From appearances it seems to work off of the standard Windows Event Manager but the 3M people at the show were unable to confirm or deny this. Either way it looks quite impressive and brings 3M right back into contention against similar offerings from its competitors.

Intellident were once again heavily promoting their smart shelves. Now working very closely with SmartSM (even down to common branding) Intellident have clearly seen an opportunity to take RFID stock management to a new level. I have a lot of questions to ask about how some of the more “blue sky” ideas that Paul Dalton presented in the show’s Technology Theatre but the direction is very clear, even if the details are still a bit fuzzy. Get ready to equip your library for supermarket style scanner racks…

Much more to say about RFID stock management once the Royal Borough reach their decision on their selection.

Wednesday sees a meeting in Birmingham of the Trade Association of Library Equipment Suppliers (TALES). This is the body that we set up many years ago to try and find better ways to exhibit our wares to libraries. LIS is the natural descendant of the show spawned at a meeting held at CLSI’s offices in Chiswick 29 years ago. Although no longer supplying anything much, I remain the secretary of this loose federation of library suppliers which will be trying to decide whether to continue to support the show in its present form. If you have any (polite) suggestions we’d like to hear them!

Radio Silence

Visited the Library Show at the NEC on Thursday, partly in my role as secretary of TALES (despite not having any equipment to supply!) and partly to see how the RFID market are responding to the challenge/opportunity of the UK National Profile for ISO 28560-2.

The expression “curate’s egg” springs to mind. Some great ideas – and some genuinely innovative new products – were on display. In some cases the art of the possible seems to have overtaken to art of the practical but it was good to see some really creative thinking.

Sadly almost no-one was talking about the potential the standard will provide for mixing and matching products from different suppliers at the show but feedback from my recent talk at CILIPS suggests that most libraries are now making the future use of the standard – and the profile – mandatory elements in their proposals. Visits to two libraries already using RFID last week confirmed that they too intend to migrate to the new standard when available.

How they might do that will be the subject of a future blog. I’m not convinced it’s quite as simple a process as some are suggesting. However with Kensington and Chelsea’s tender evaluation process now underway I find myself in a kind of “purdah” until it is completed an must refrain from detailed comment until it is complete.

So radio silence must be maintained for a little while longer…

Deafening Silence

Recent exchanges off-list (and off-blog) have once again revealed a significant degree of unhappiness in some quarters concerning what appears to be an effectively protectionist approach being taken by at least one major RFID supplier.

I think most libraries now understand that the lack of a common data standard will become something of a problem when the time comes to re-invest in RFID, although perhaps it’s only the earlier adopters who are now discovering just how much “interoperability” really exists in the current market.

That’s why the recent agreements on ISO 28560-2 and the UK National Profile were so important. It appeared then that everyone understood that in order to deliver real value RFID would have to submit to some regulation. Certainly all the RFID companies were falling over themselves to express their support for the programme.

Back in April Chris Hankinson, a student at Nottingham Business School had emailed me about an RFID project which contained the observation that the lack of a universal standard was one of the key barriers to progress. (There were also some great ideas for university libraries – suppliers may contact me for Chris’ details!)

Two weeks ago Dylan Edgar of LibrariesWest – a consortium made up of Somerset, Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath & NE Somerset and North Somerset councils emailed me to let me know that,

“From our point of view, the new UK profile can only be a good thing. Although we share an LMS (name provided), RFID was not something that was procured jointly. Consequently, we have a variety of solutions scattered across the consortium and we do run into some very real and immediate interoperability issues. Anything that can help with that has to be a good thing in my view.

So, a big thumbs up from the LW consortium!”

It seemed that everyone was marching confidently toward what Stephen Mossop of Exeter University once memorably referred as the sunlit uplands…

And then I received the email I referred to in my last post. Which was, as I said, disappointing. I quote (with permission):

“Apparently, (company A) had indicated to (company B) some time ago that they’d be willing to share their data model, but now they take the view that the data model is commercially sensitive information and therefore are not willing to disclose it.”

Companies A and B are identified in the email but I am not at liberty to disclose their identity for legal reasons. I hope they know who they are because if they don’t, we have a bigger problem than I think we do.

I wrote to another colleague whom I knew had been trying to do pretty much the same thing and they confirmed that they were having the same problem with the same company. Despite repeated requests their letters weren’t even being answered.

The thing that strikes me most about these exchanges is that my two correspondents don’t appear to know each other and therefore can’t join forces to lobby their supplier. People used to do that when I was an MD. Maybe if they did it now three things might happen:

1.  The company in question might respond more favourably

2.  Other libraries might stop spending money on solutions that may offer a limited future

3.  My correspondents might be able to exercise their right to choose what solution they want.

The blog is at your disposal.

It’s just a thought.

Are your RFID tags encrypted?

Recently one of the UK’s early RFID adopters asked me a question that rang alarm bells about the attitude of one UK supplier to the standards issue.

It was a simple scenario. The library had installed an RFID self-service issue and security solution from one supplier and was now interested in installing an automated returns sorter from another. They were aware that there might be some programming work required since, as readers of this blog are fed up with hearing, all UK suppliers use different data models.

Their reasonable expectation was that, with programming, the new sorter could be enabled to read their existing tags. At least one other university has done this successfully, so it seemed reasonable to assume that the same course of action could be followed here.

But sadly this was not so. The university has been advised that permission to read the tags has been denied by the incumbent supplier.

They were curious to know if anyone else had encountered a similar problem. So I asked the list. So far no-one has felt moved to respond – on or off list – although an email from a public library colleague revealed that their most recent project was being delayed by the absence of permission from the same company.

And yesterday came the suggestion in another email that this isn’t simply a case of permission. The data being written to the tags may in fact be encrypted.

What does that mean? Put simply it means that no other supplier can read the data without access to the encyption key. I recall suggesting that this could happen about a year ago at a presentation I gave in Glasgow but was very firmly told I was being alarmist (by the same supplier!) Maybe I inadvertently gave them the idea?

I have not yet been able to establish the accuracy of this latest assertion but its source has always been entirely reliable. So I suggest that if you have already have RFID installed in your library you ask if your data is being encrypted because, if it is, future development might be more difficult than it need be.

BIC launches e4libraries accreditation scheme to reward efficiency in the library supply chain

Book Industry Communication (BIC) has launched a new accreditation scheme for organisations operating in the library supply chain and is inviting applications from library authorities, academic institution libraries, library consortia or individual special libraries; library stock suppliers; and systems suppliers and other service providers active in this marketplace.

The scheme, which is part of BIC’s e4libraries initiative, will enable successful organisations to demonstrate their commitment to electronic trading and other beneficial library technology. Beneficial technology chiefly comprises full-cycle EDI or other forms of e-trading with stock suppliers, but is often supplemented by implementation of RFID systems where appropriate and by efficient access to, and use of, bibliographic records, as well as the adoption of more efficient working practices in the supply chain.

Full details of the scheme and application forms can be found on the BIC web site . Applications will be judged by an independent BIC review group on the basis of self-assessment, supported by the evidence of trading partners and service providers, and will take into account qualitative considerations as well as statistical evidence.

Martin Palmer of Essex Libraries, Chair of the e4libraries steering committee and BIC board member, commented: ‘We hope that this scheme will provide a valuable focus for the e4libraries initiative, encouraging libraries and other related organisations to celebrate their successes in improving the efficiency of the library supply chain.’

Further information from Peter Kilborn on 020 7607 9021 or peter@bic.org.uk.

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