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.

Every year I receive complaints from suppliers who feel that their system is underrepresented in the survey but since I always write to all the suppliers I know of asking them to promote the survey to their clients I don’t have too much sympathy with these complaints. “Why not ask your clients to complete the survey” is my stock reply.

So the survey is obviously flawed. It can only reflect the views of those individuals who take the time to complete it – a point I have made consistently since I was first asked to attempt an audit of UK users by the now defunct Museums, Libraries and Archives. They were the UK agency with responsibility for libraries and even they didn’t know the answer to the questions I have been asking since 2009.

I’m always grateful for input – even when a librarian awards performance scores that are clearly at odds with almost all other users of a system. I don’t eliminate these scores – I simply remind readers that it’s THEIR survey and to use their judgement as to how reliable their fellow librarians might be.

So why do I bother?

The survey, flawed and incomplete as it is, nevertheless offers some real insight into the concerns and aspirations of librarians seeking to improve their service with what is becoming an increasingly complex technology. That input helps me determine which issues the various agencies for whom I either work or offer advice – primarily BSI, ISO and BIC – should be focussing their efforts upon.

Supplier’s attempts to steer opinion toward support for their individual commercial agendas have, up to now, never damaged its overall value but this inappropriate commercial use of a small part of this year’s data forces me to reconsider the advisability of including supplier performance in future surveys. It seems particularly ironic that the company responsible for using my blog (without my consent) to promote their commercial ambitions have not seen fit to support any of the initiatives being promoted by those seeking to create a more open and competitive market.

Librarians are smart people so I’m sure that anyone who received a copy of a part of any survey would want to find out more about its purpose and limitations rather than accepting it at face value.

It would be unwise for anyone to rely on these results in making purchasing decisions. There is no substitute for doing the research I’m afraid. To make a sensible decision you need to talk to other librarians, industry experts and thoroughly understand what each company is offering – and why.

If you want to know how to interpret the survey results – ask me, not a supplier. What would you expect a competitor to say about another competitor? If the company circulating this information felt so strongly that it was firm evidence of support for their products over another’s I would have expected them to have the courtesy to ask me if they could use it in this way. The fact that they didn’t makes me suspicious of their motives – as it should any librarian that received it.

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