An interoperable sort of day…

Yesterday I was in Birmingham at the offices of Capita Library Services our hosts for a day of coding and discussion. My job, as chair of BIC‘s various Library Communication Framework  (LCF) committees was to kick-off the first LCF “Plugfest” where developers from different library system suppliers spent the day writing and testing applications using the new framework launched last November.

Plugfest

The Plugfest is an important part of the process of developing more interoperable systems as it offers developers the opportunity to verify that the applications they are writing work in practice. It also ensures that the team of Technical Editors charged with the responsibility of maintaining the framework are made aware of new requirements and any problem areas. Plugfests will be an essential and frequent part of the development process as more and more library applications adopt the framework. Yesterday’s event was attended by representatives from 2CQR, Bibliotheca+3M, P.V. Supa, from the world of RFID; Capita, Civica, Innovative and Infor (late apologies were received from Axiell) representing LMS providers as well as third party suppliers Lorensbergs and Insight Media.

Unusually for such a highly competitive market everyone attending had already signed up to share freely the fruits of their labours. This spirit of co-operation appears to be almost unique to the UK as colleagues in Australia and North America frequently express disbelief when I tell them that competitors in the UK library market actually work together to try and find ways to improve both the user’s and staff experience of library automation. “You’d be lucky to get them in the same room here!” is one popular response. Certainly there are plenty of examples of companies meeting to discuss new standards and best practice – America’s National Information Standards Organisation (NISO) has been discussing a successor to the SIP protocol for more than three years now – but it seems to be unusual for competitors to share code, provide hardware and develop best practice together as they do in the UK.

Perhaps that’s why the authors of the other big interoperability event of the day – the publication of the long-awaited ACE funded, SCL initiative on creating a single digital presence for England’s public libraries – ignored invitations to discuss LCF during their lengthy investigation of the UK library systems market.

Now of course I’d be the first to acknowledge that the BiblioCommons report concerns itself with much wider issues than the existing systems infrastructure but a significant part of its recommendations appears to suggest that the only way forward is for them to write new code to create a new BiblioCommons software layer on top of the various existing LMS systems, pending migrating everyone to a new, purpose-built BiblioCommons LMS at some future date. One might argue that the same result might be achieved more cheaply by awarding a contract to a single supplier now and cutting out the highly risky intermediate stage recommended by BiblioCommons. But then that is what they do for a living.

Nonetheless ignoring the significant work already being done in this area seems at best something of an oversight?

I’ll be writing a full review of the BiblioCommons report on my other blog in the near future as its findings and recommendations go way beyond the relatively simple aim of establishing a common framework for interoperability but the irony of the juxtaposition of these two events was irresistible!

Meanwhile, back in the real world, this first Plugfest was a great success and the LCF Project is now well and truly under way. New functionality – that is both interoperable between disparate systems and which can readily be migrated without impact between suppliers – is no longer a system integrator’s dream but a developer’s work in progress.

 

 

 

Literary location for Library Launch

22nd October saw another important milestone being reached for the Library Communication Framework (LCF) with its official launch taking place at the somewhat unlikely venue of the “Poetry Café” in the heart of London’s Covent Garden.  IMG_5588

The somewhat cosy atmosphere did however encourage conversation – one of the aims of Book Industry Communication (BIC) “Breakfasts” – and everyone I spoke to appeared to have enjoyed the experience.

The three main presenters – Catherine Cooke from Tri-Borough Libraries and Archives, Anthony Whitford of Capita and myself – explained the genesis of the project, its purpose, governance and future development as well as offering advice on what steps librarians and suppliers should take if they want to participate. All the presentation slides are available here.

The heavily over-subscribed event was attended by many of the leading suppliers in the library sector – 2CQR, Axiell Ltd, Bibliotheca, Capita, Civica, D-Tech International Ltd, Ex Libris UK, Infor, Innovative Interfaces, Insight Media Internet Limited, Lorensbergs Ltd, Nielsen Book, ProQuest Bowker, PTFS Europe, SOLUS UK Ltd.; representatives from key library organisations – CILIP, Libraries Taskforce,  DCMS, The British Library, and even librarians – from Buckinghamshire Library Service, Enfield Library and Museum Service, GLL, Tri-Borough Libraries and Archives.

Many of the suppliers present – and some who were unable to attend – had already pledged their support for the framework by signing up for membership of the recently established LCF Consortium (full list here). Consortium members agree to work together to promote the adoption of the framework for the development of better interoperability between library management (LMS) and third party systems. To the casual reader this might sound like a public relations exercise but it’s much more than that. Contributors work together in an entirely open environment, its deliberations and decisions open to public examination and comment. Three Technical Editors – one from JISC, one from the supplier market and a third from the standards arena – are responsible for growing and maintaining the framework on a day to day basis while their decisions are reviewed monthly by a Technical Committee which I chair on behalf of BIC.

Governance rests with BIC who undertake to manage the development of the framework on behalf of the library community. The LCF “Charter” (to be issued before the end of the year) will, among other requirements, bind members to agree to share their contributions to the framework with other users.

The consortium is separately funded from other BIC activities by its supplier members and BIC membership is not be a pre-requisite for membership.

There is a lot more information about LCF available on the web and elsewhere on this blog. Follow @BIC_LCF to keep up to date on developments.

Big day for library systems communications!

Today sees the official launch of the Library Communication Framework (LCF). Originally conceived as a replacement for 3M’s Standard Interchange Protocol (SIP) the framework has been several years in the making and has, through the active involvement of both suppliers and librarians working together, grown from a simple updating of protocols for running RFID self-service into a significant contribution to interoperability across a range of products and services.BIC

Exactly why LCF was developed has been the subject of many papers and reports over the period. The more enthusiastic reader will find a succinct (if somewhat dated) explanation in the BIC archive.

Having myself first proposed that a replacement for SIP was long overdue back in 2010 it was in fact my colleague Frances Cave who first suggested that a “framework” would offer a more flexible approach for the industry in general. The history of these early discussions and meetings up to the original launch of what was then called “BLCF” (the “B” standing for BIC) can be found here.

Renamed “LCF” (in response to a request from American colleagues, who thought the “B” might be thought by some to stand for “British”) the LCF working party – which it has been my privilege to chair – has expanded both in membership and scope since 2012 and over the last 18 months has seen the establishment of a regulatory mechanism to ensure that the framework remains current and avoids the problems – inherent in SIP – of allowing developers to add new values and functions almost at will. BIC – an independent organisation – will maintain and develop the framework for the benefit of all.

Most heartening – for me – are the number of both RFID and LMS suppliers that have already signed up to the LCF “Charter” – a statement of intent to comply with, promote and of course use the framework to develop better interoperability between systems. The astute librarian will want to scan the list of LCF supporters carefully and perhaps question why some suppliers haven’t wanted to support the aims of this entirely open framework.

Developing better interoperability and ultimately more closely integrated systems has been the dream of librarians for many years. There have been many attempts to solve the myriad problems of multiple formats, different architectures and a lamentable lack of industry standards. Most have sunk without trace. Libraries have responded to these disappointments in a variety of ways – single LMS procurements, moves to Open Source solutions and potentially even API heavy middleware adding significant cost without commensurately improving interoperability. The industry badly needs to put its house in order. The framework provides a starting point for realising that dream.

The framework is officially launched today and the press release can be downloaded here. A BIC Breakfast meeting in London on the 22nd October will provide an early opportunity for librarians and others to find out more about the framework, ask questions about its use and most importantly discover how making it a mandatory requirement in future system procurements will ensure the best return on investment for cash-strapped libraries. I and two of my fellow LCF working party – Catherine Cooke (Triborough Libraries) and Anthony Whitford (Capita) will be speaking – details here.

Note: Please don’t confuse the library communication framework with purchasing frameworks (such as that brokered by organisations like ESPO).

This is a data framework developed by members of the library profession working with their suppliers to improve interoperability. Purchasing frameworks essentially facilitate hardware purchase at discounted rates.

Library Security – worth the money?

A recent article in Public Library News by my friend Ian Anstice talked about his experiences at the recent Spanish library conference in Badajoz. He had been invited to talk about the current situation in the UK – which horrified his audience – but it was another presentation that really set him thinking.

Jane Cowell – the Director of Public & Indigenous Services at State Library of Queensland in Australia – talked about library security and that set several hares running through Mr A’s thoughts – why do we need it and is it value for money being very prominent.

From my perspective it was quite refreshing to see these questions being asked at all. Security is a subject of many conversations in the world I most frequent – RFID.

In the confused and often confusing world of RFID the usual starting point for conversations I’ve had with librarians over the last seven years is not whether but when they should invest. Back in 2006 my advice was to wait until the market stabilised.

In effect that happened in 2011 when suppliers agreed to use common standards. By then more than 50% of UK libraries had spent the money anyway. Which I found rather ironic as if libraries hadn’t been so eager to buy non standards-based solutions we could have created a more open and integrated market rather earlier.

But that was then, and this is now. The main question Ian raises is, essentially, do we really need security? Which made me wonder if he has a point…

There’s not much advantage in investing in security if the cure is worse than the disease. To put that another way – is the cost of providing a solution higher than the cost of the losses? In my naïve, simplistic way I always assumed that someone somewhere does the sums when libraries go out to market for security solutions. But after reading Ian’s piece I’m not so sure.

In calculating the cost of losses we must take account not only of the actual cost of purchase but any intrinsic value of items. Are items irreplaceable, in heavy use, reference only? Would there be a reputational cost to the library of any losses? So calculating that side of the equation clearly isn’t straightforward, but is it done at all?

Then there’s the efficacy of the security. Reports from libraries switching to RFID suggest that even with pre-existing security systems up to 30% of stock listed in the catalogue cannot be traced when items are tagged. Many libraries used some form of security before they switched – and some even bought RFID solutions from the same company that sold the system being replaced. (I wonder if they got a discount on the new security system to compensate for the shortcomings of the original.)

These concerns apply to any form of security of course but – as you might imagine – my primary interest lies in the use of RFID. Are things different when the security system is based on that technology?

To answer that question let’s first return to the scenario that Jane spoke about in Spain – and that has been implemented in West Downs Library in Queensland.

West Downs use Civica’s Spydus software as their management system (variously known as the LMS, ILS and even ILMS in Anglophone countries).  Only one of their nine branches has any form of security at that one is based on UHF RFID.

Spydus – like many LMS providers these days – offer a library “app” for readers to use on their smartphones and tablets. Once “logged in” a user is known to the system and can – if the library allows it – use the app to borrow and return items. This is done by scanning the item barcode using the mobile’s camera.

In the eight branches without security theft is of an order of magnitude that the library determined to be acceptable when they did their initial analysis. Sylvia Swalling (Library Service Coordinator at West Downs) suggested to me that this is “perhaps because we are a regional library service and things are a bit more personal… ”.

In the ninth branch the security is based on a UHF solution. Unlike HF – the predominant system in use in the world’s RFID equipped libraries – UHF doesn’t use security on tags as such. Instead the status of an item is set within the LMS once the barcode has been read. If the reader tries to remove an item that has not been released the gates will sound an alarm.

In an HF system the security gates generally have only to scan a security bit on the tag to determine whether items may pass but in the UHF model every item has to be verified with the LMS. This can cause delays in busy libraries and is perhaps one reason why using security at all is viewed rather differently in Australian libraries than in say a busy Inner London authority.

In another popular form of self-service in the international market sees readers store their user ID as a barcode in an app. Users then use this “electronic” barcode in the same way as a membership card and take their device to a staff or self-service device to scan in the usual way. My local supermarket uses the same solution for crediting my loyalty account. Whilst this is sometimes represented in the literature as being a “mobile” solution it barely qualifies as such since security and validation are entirely separated from the “app”.

For those libraries (the vast majority) using HF RFID the most attractive, value for money, option would be to have the user use their own device to issue items to themselves. Since HF based security systems rely on data being written and read directly to and from the tag (rather than by having to link to the LMS) a truly mobile solution requires that devices not only read item IDs but can also write the necessary data to an item tag in order for it to be removed from the library.

This can now be achieved using devices that are NFC (Near Field Communication) enabled. But devices also need to have NFC “opened up” for use by applications – and despite introducing the technology in the iPhone 6 and 6s Apple has not yet allowed anyone else to use it. So for the moment we’re talking about Android devices only.

In one scenario a user might identify an item they wish to borrow and interact directly with it via the item tag using NFC. Then, in the same way as kiosks interact with the LMS to establish if an item can be borrowed (interpreting loan rules, checking reservations etc.) If the device receives a positive response from the LMS it can write the necessary data to the tag allowing the item to pass the security gates. Otherwise the user will be told to replace the item.

Using this approach a significant amount of the cost of expensive self-service equipment is passed onto the library user. As the number of NFC devices owned by the public grows so the number of kiosks required might be expected to fall. Security costs fall commensurately.

So far I haven’t found a company that offers this option although there are variations that come close. In the UK and ANZ some RFID suppliers now enable staff to issue items at the shelf, either via NFC Android devices or using a standard 13.56 MHz RFID scanner attached to a smartphone. It’s a halfway house to full user-powered self-service.

This recently created (and almost accidental) ability of smartphones to communicate with stock opens up a number of other possibilities for interaction of course. In house use could be monitored, linking to related resources becomes possible via the physical item and not just via the catalogue, other RFID enabled items in the library landscape might be read in the same way as QR codes – with the advantage that RFID tags are dynamic and the data they contain can be altered, whereas QR codes are static.

Now all of that is still in the future – though probably not much more than months away. So for any librarians that are now pondering whether they should ditch their expensive RFID security systems and absorb the possible consequential losses I have another suggestion. Wait a while. If you were wise enough to buy after 2011 (or have subsequently migrated to the data standard) your original investment decision may be about to unexpectedly pay off more than any of us could have imagined as RFID delivers new ways of exploiting both your physical and virtual collections.

Of course if you bought non-standards based solutions – or the UHF form of RFID none of this applies. NFC only operates at HF frequencies.

So is library security worth the money? Well like everything else, it depends. The Australian solution works in their circumstances, and could work in some UK libraries too.

But if, like most UK public libraries, you have already heavily invested in RFID I think it’s a very different matter. Can you buy RFID without the security? Yes – but why would you? The only component that would be an extra cost would be the gates – and as others have pointed out – that’s nothing like as big a figure as the rest of the RFID infrastructure and software. Consider too the possible savings to be made on staff and self-service terminals.

As with most things it pays to look at the whole picture. That will become even more important as RFID solutions become more sophisticated. The important thing is to do your homework.

New kid on the block – Solus makes its mark in library RFID.

For some time now my iPhone has been issuing daily reminders to me to write about my August visit to Woolwich and Wandsworth. My apologies to my gracious host and old friend Diana Edmonds for taking so long to sit down at a desk again and go over my notes.

However, as is so often the case, the passing of time has already brought new developments in the story that hopefully make it more informative – so here is my account of my return to the noble town of Woolwich, Greenwich Leisure Limited and a brief profile of one of the newest members of the RFID scene in the UK – Solus UK Limited.

Diana invited me to see what GLL were doing in both Greenwich and Wandsworth some time ago. As something of an advocate (one might almost say “pioneer”) of new technologies in libraries I knew that GLL had recently invested in new self-service kiosks and digital tables from Solus and I was interested both to see the devices in action and to discuss how the problem of interoperability – a perennial topic of discussion among London libraries were being overcome.

The first, and very gratifying, impression one has on arriving in Woolwich Library is of excitement. The place was simply buzzing with enthusiasm. Peoples’ network PCs were in high demand near the entrance, while two lively children’s groups were occupying another corner. About twenty members of the knitting circle were engaged in lively debate and creativity in one of the glass cubes that are made available to a large number of interest groups. And that was just the ground floor.

» Read more

Apple, Android and NFC – how should libraries prepare?

Being an enthusiastic supporter of RFID I was pleased to see Apple finally embrace NFC in its latest iPhone range – albeit a little half-heartedly – joining the growing list of devices that already support the technology.

Apple’s diffidence in restricting NFC to payments for the time being is perhaps understandable given its enormous market potential and their caution should probably be applauded.

For libraries the potential is obvious. Library users in possession of an NFC device potentially already have access to any item bearing the most common type of RFID tag since they not only operate at the same frequency as NFC but support communication protocols that enable devices to read and write data to both smartcards and item tags (subject to any encryption or data-locking that may be in place).

Up until now NFC has been rightly viewed with some caution by librarians since it could be used maliciously in libraries using RFID for self-service etc. The UK’s library and book trade standards body – Book Industry Communication (BIC) – gave an assessment of the risks and issued its guidance for librarians earlier in the year. To date there have been no reported malicious attacks on library stocks so it would seem that the optimism the document expressed was justified. » Read more

Getting things in perspective

Recently I have received a number of communications about my 2014 Library RFID survey that have given me cause for concern.

More than one sent an attachment – a PDF copy of Part 3 of the survey – the section that gives details of supplier performance against a number of different criteria. Flattering though it was to note that someone in America (the PDF had an American date format on each page) had thought the survey of sufficient interest to make a PDF copy I was more than a little concerned to discover that the file was being distributed as part of a marketing campaign by a US RFID supplier because, taken out of context, the information it contained might be misleading.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to remind readers who may not have been reading the survey for themselves (and that presumably includes those who were sent a copy from by this US supplier) how the results are compiled – and how much credence should be given to the findings.

The first thing to remind everyone is that it is by no means a comprehensive survey. No-one on the planet has any clear idea how many libraries use RFID technology – I read an article only this morning about the number of new UHF installations in China alone. I can’t email every library on Earth so I rely on the goodwill and enthusiasm of those who use and supply the systems, and in some countries, the help of professional bodies and standards agencies to promote the survey. » Read more

RFID usage in Dutch and Belgian Public Libraries

Day One – Amersfoort, Almere and Amstelveen

Following a most enjoyable visit to Lyon for the 80th World Library and Information Congress in August I accepted invitations from two companies operating in the RFID market to go and visit their installations in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Having previously worked in both countries (for three different companies!) it seemed too good an opportunity to see not only how RFID is being used but to renew my acquaintance with the two library communities. I was also eager to see how public libraries in particular were facing up to the challenges that seem at times to be overwhelming their UK counterparts.

My hosts for the first day were the recently renamed Nedap Library Solutions (@nedaplibrix). Having met with Sharon Beening and Ruud Owens in Lyon – and having had some contact with an earlier UK incarnation of Nedap’s library division I wanted to understand more about a company that works extensively with business partners in the UK and elsewhere but which does sell directly into the UK market.

Up until 2014 there had been few Nedap users in the annual survey – despite their obvious considerable presence in the Dutch library market – and I wanted to know more about the development of their product portfolio –especially since the Netherlands developed a national data standard for RFID some time before the UK. » Read more

EU issues Directive on RFID Privacy

On July 31st the European Union finally published directive M436 on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). M436 has been in process for so long that many RFID users may have forgotten all about it some time ago. A few may never even have heard of it.

M436 attempts to deal with concerns over the privacy issues that have surrounded this technology since it first appeared – in libraries over 20 years ago. The directive is “application agnostic” – meaning that the rules apply to RFID users regardless of how they are using the technology. Libraries are one of the key areas of activity already identified by the EU and they will certainly feel the effects of mandate M436 over the next few months/years.

Locations will be required to display a sign

Locations will be required to display a sign

There are two main elements to the directive as I outlined in my “quick guide” for librarians back in 2013. The first, and simplest, is signage. Locations where RFID is being used will be required to display a sign advising users of this fact.

The second, and slightly more demanding requirement is to carry out a Privacy Impact Assessment in order to produce a Privacy Impact Statement that should also be made available to anyone wishing to understand the implications of the use of RFID in an establishment. In a library this might be displayed alongside the sign – or advice be displayed indicating where the statement can be found – on a website for example.

 

The mandate is issued to European standards bodies to create standards for ensuring the privacy of individuals using RFID solutions. As such it has no legal force as such, but may grow teeth if either the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) or the European Union itself decides this issue requires formal legislation. Certainly the display of signs and the creation of a Privacy Impact Statement should now be regarded as “best practice” for librarians.

Book Industry Communication (BIC) established a Privacy Group (which I chaired) in 2013 to maintain a watching brief on the progress of M436 and to liaise with the ICO in order to ascertain that body’s attitude to possible legislation. This group will now be reconvened in the near future to initiate its education programme for librarians wishing to know more – or to comply with the directive. Invitations have been issued to both the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) and the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) to participate in this process.

 

Book Industry Communication (BIC) releases advice for library RFID users

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the issue of Near Field Communication (NFC) devices being used in conjunction with RFID systems. A quick search for “NFC” on this blog will throw up articles going back over several years explaining why this is an issue that needs to be considered and what steps might be taken to minimise any risks.

BIC has now published its guidance for librarians – available here.

The guidance is the product of BIC’s NFC Working Group and draws heavily on the opinions and expertise of most of the major RFID suppliers in the UK market. As the person tasked with bringing this project to completion I would like to add my personal thanks to representatives of 3M and Bibliotheca in particular for sharing their advice and suggestions so freely.

Is there any cause for concern?

Well the best way to find out is probably to read the document and then perhaps talk to the experts. The incontrovertible fact is that smartphones equipped with NFC can now read and write data to and from almost all the RFID tags used in the world’s libraries.

So it’s probably a good idea to find out what that might mean for you.

 

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