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.

Some of my library campaigner friends knew I was going to a GLL site and wanted me to question the staff closely about working conditions. Concerns (that I share) are rife about the creeping privatisation of public services and GLL had been a target for protesters in the past.

Since I had not been invited as a campaigner but as a friend I declined to carry out such an inquiry into working conditions but I did talk to a number of staff during the day (and I had complete freedom to decide which) – at Woolwich, Thamesmead and Wandsworth – and every one of them appeared to be very enthusiastic about both the work they were doing, and GLL.

But to return to the main point of my visit – the technology.

One of the problems facing the London Library Consortium (LLC) is that of interoperability. Different Library Management Systems (LMS) operate in different ways often making the unification of “back office” operations difficult or impossible to achieve. Common catalogues have been created – often by the addition of third party solutions from organisations like OCLC – but outside of this, more visible, co-operative venture very few other library operations will “play nicely” across different LMS platforms. The LLC’s solution to this problem has been to insist on its members using the same LMS. A solution that appears to have now attracted the interest of William Sieghart.

But interoperability between LMS solutions is only one part of the problem. In the world of RFID, before 2011, suppliers developed their own proprietary solutions – programming tags in whatever way they thought best – with the immediate consequence that no two libraries could use each other’s tags, and the longer term consequence that no new application provider could approach the library market without having to find a way to solve this same problem over and over again.

In Woolwich D Tech’s implementation RFID tags using own data model had been encoded in all the library stock. A pattern repeated in every UK library authority up until the market adoption of an international data standard in 2011. As with the LMS problem the LLC’s response to this difficulty was to recommend that all its members use the same RFID solution – potentially dealing yet another body blow to a market that thrives on competition.

GLL – well primarily Diana’s – response to the problem was typically bold. They asked Solus to deliver a solution that could read the old tag formats as well as the new international standard. They also wanted devices that offered them more input to the look and feel of the screens.

Other RFID suppliers now offer similar solutions but what interested me about Solus is that they have come to this market from a different direction than their competitors. Solus operate mainly in the digital market supplying digital tables, signage and “apps” for smartphones and tablets. So their interest in working with RFID in library assets closely reflected my own and I wanted to know more both about their direction of travel and the products they are currently delivering.


Self service unit with drop box

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a newcomer they have had to learn more about self-service than possibly anyone might imagine existed. So there have been some teething troubles – and many tweaks! But staff at Thamesmead were eager to show me the first self-service kiosks they’ve had installed in the borough – which suggests that these problems have not diminished staff enthusiasm for the product. (And staff enthusiasm for self-service is, in my experience, a rare commodity).

User-driven self-service is pretty straightforward, using SIP to communicate between the devices and the LMS and recognising whichever format tag was being presented (D Tech or ISO). But I was in for a surprise when the unit was switched over to staff use. A D Tech tagged item was presented to the kiosk and I briefly saw a dialogue box flash across the screen that appeared to ask if I wanted to convert the item to ISO format. Staff at Thamesmead weren’t sure whether tags were being converted or not so I added this question to my list for Solus.

Back to Woolwich and another technological innovation – again from Solus – sits in the centre of the main library. This is a digital table. Like many others I have seen in libraries around the world it is perhaps a little underused at the moment but the inclusion of an RFID reader in the design will allow for more interaction with stock in the future – perhaps of a similar nature to Oslo Public’s “smart shelf”?

GLL Table 1

The digital table is very popular with younger library users.

For the moment I was told that the main users of the table were children playing games although I saw two older users looking for information on council services during the time I was watching.

Leaving behind childhood memories from 50 years earlier Diana and I headed for Wandsworth’s Balham library – coincidentally the area of London to which I moved in 1970. The day was turning out to be a real trip down memory lane.

To be honest there wasn’t much to see at Balham that I hadn’t seen before. Like all LLC libraries Axiell and Bibliotheca were the incumbent suppliers for the LMS and RFID solutions respectively so the news that Wandsworth were withdrawing from the LLC (for economic rather than technical reasons) raised some interesting questions in my mind. Questions that I would need to put to Solus when next I met them for one of our regular chats on library technology…

And last week, while I was in Glasgow, that chance finally materialised and I met up with Andrew Daye and Neil Wishart to ask my questions about GLL, self-service and the possibilities now offered by Near Field Communication (NFC) as I mentioned in my September article.

Things had moved on.

In Wandsworth (though not yet in Balham) self-service devices now also read both the format originally developed by DS (taken over and developed further by Axiell) and currently supported by Bibliotheca – and ISO data standard compliant tags. In addition the option I saw in Thamesmead – to switch tags over to the ISO standard on issue – will be switched on (it isn’t in Thamesmead) and not just for staff access. Wandsworth stock will be converted “on the fly” in normal issue mode – i.e. as borrowers use the kiosks.

This capability (which it should be said is also claimed by other RFID suppliers) raises the possibility of other LLC members breaking ranks and choosing their own RFID solutions.

Switching to the ISO standard may not sound significant of itself but as I mentioned previously NFC may soon prove to be the catalyst for moving circulation (and potentially other) functionality to smartphones and tablets – away from the LMS. The economic advantages of users effectively carrying their own self-service devices around with them (and reducing loads on kiosks) are obvious but the potential for developing new functionality – to monitor in-house use of stock and other assets for example – would be a major win for librarians everywhere. And using a common data standard makes it simpler to develop a solution to do just that.

At least so I thought.

In fact I discovered that Solus were way ahead of me having already developed and demonstrated a self-service issue facility for Android devices to potential clients over a year ago. Whilst I still believe that it is in the national interest to develop and use standards for identification on smart devices (something that is already in progress – and that will not require input from the library market!) Solus already use their existing library app sign-in to identify borrowers on a single system. Potentially a “national” sign-in could obviate any requirement for a hardware solution to the problem but no-one is thinking about this… yet.

What surprised me was that according to Solus CEO Neil Wishart reaction to this service has so far been rather luke-warm. Perhaps it’s the usual reaction of librarians to self-service? Perhaps it’s (misplaced) concerns about privacy? I’d love to know.

I also learned much more about Solus future development plans – though sadly nothing I can share at this moment – but enough to convince me that something exciting is happening in the world of library RFID and that it will change the way many services are delivered in the future.

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