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.

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