The painfully slow rise of Near Field Communication (NFC)

NFC in the libraryFor some time now I’ve been trying to interest librarians, RFID and LMS suppliers and, well pretty much anybody who’ll listen, in the potential of Near Field Communication in the library. So far the response has been rather less than I’d expected. Bordering on complete disinterest in fact.

I did manage to join in a brief Twitter conversation on January 5th with American colleagues interested in getting more out of NFC initiated by NISO Director Todd Carpenter but nobody, including me, knew of any library anywhere that was using NFC for loans (or “checkout” as it’s known over there). Todd speculated that NFC adoption might happen faster outside of the US as there was wider acceptance of the technology in other parts of the world. Tom Bruno of Yale University thought that NFC might succeed where QR had failed.

Personally I felt that it would be the lack of data standards adoption in the US that would be a bigger obstacle to developing the potential of the NFC market since any company seeking to use anything other than the unique ID on an RFID tag would have to develop different solutions for each library. The UK and Australia I felt offered the best opportunity for developing new applications.

I’m in the process of writing a new book on RFID use in the library and spend many a happy hour trawling the internet for innovation. I recently discovered another Norwegian project called “UBook” that used NFC in some very imaginative ways way back in 2012. It made me wonder if there’s something in the water in Oslo since their Deichman public library has been providing me the best example of using RFID to link a library’s physical and virtual collections for some time now.

I have been speculating for some time now that in a library with public access wifi library users with NFC enabled smartphones ought to be able to take a book from the shelf, scan the tag and link directly to the library’s database to find whatever related resources – physical or virtual – the library has identified as perhaps being of interest.

Yet even in Oslo – where they clearly have talent and imagination – this doesn’t appear to be happening yet.

So what are the obstacles to making such a seemingly simple step I wonder?

Librarians I have spoken to tell me that there’s no point in creating a service that isn’t open to all, but that sounds increasingly like an argument against change to me. If I’m not housebound should I deny that service to those that are?

RFID suppliers have hinted that they are actively planning NFC developments  – FE Technologies (now part of Invengo)  in Australia and New Zealand and Bibliotheca in the UK for example – but there’s little hard information from either so far. Bibliotheca did bring an RFID scanner (attached to a smartphone) to market in 2013 but it wasn’t NFC and it was for staff use only.

Meanwhile Solus – a relative newcomer to the RFID market – tell me they have developed and even demonstrated NFC powered loans to a Scottish university but there was no interest in pursuing it any further than proof of concept. My recent suggestion – again on Twitter – that allowing users to use their own devices to borrow and return books might save expensive investment on self-service devices was met with at best disbelief and at worse ridicule – from librarians not suppliers. I still don’t know why.

Perhaps there are vested interests here that have persuaded the market that NFC has nothing to offer? RFID suppliers might not want to see their self-kiosks being replaced by smartphones perhaps? Particularly those that seek to extend their reach into new local government markets by developing new, non-library functionality for them? That seems unlikely. Why not develop smartphone apps instead?

Besides I spend a lot of time working with suppliers – LMS and RFID (and others) – and many of them are eager to find new markets for innovative products. It’s the librarians that are unenthusiastic they say.

Unenthusiastic? Or broke? If it’s the latter then surely transferring some of your service costs (painlessly) to your clients might help? A Belgian colleague disagreed. A 20% reduction in self-service kiosk demand wouldn’t result in a commensurate reduction in costs. Not even in the largest libraries? Not if ALL smartphones had NFC (which looks a pretty good bet for 2016 if not this year).

Ho hum. I guess I’d better get back to the day job. And the book.

But if anyone out there is – or plans to – start using smartphones for loans, returns, enquiry or exploration…you will let me know won’t you?


  • Following the publication of this post I received an email from a librarian working in a public library that goes some way to answering my question. Perhaps more importantly it gives (at the end of the thread) an indication of the vulnerability that many working in public sector libraries feel.

    They have agreed to let me publish the following edited extract from our email conversation.


    Dear Mick

    1. Why would anyone want to do this?

    In response I suggested that library users would benefit by being able to discover library resources from the books on the shelves. The shelves would become another starting point for discovery rather than merely a destination.

    My correspondent however expressed doubts that this would be of interest to public library users.

    I also suggested that by using their own devices users might avoid queues – especially at self-service kiosks. The response to that was that “they queue at is what left of the counters instead.”

    My final speculative beneficiaries were the existing systems suppliers. I suggested that either LMS or RFID suppliers – or…someone else – might want to do it because it’s a sales opportunity, and it would disrupt the existing market.

    My correspondent confessed to being wary of developments by existing suppliers and pointed out that, having been one myself, I knew that that each time we did something new customers go backwards initially! They further suggested that there were barriers to new suppliers entering the market (but didn’t say what they might be)

    2. Is there an appetite to do it, given the recent investment in kiosks?

    (My response) “Can’t answer that, but the costs could be minimal. The app could be provided free to users by the library. The development cost to the library could be less than buying a kiosk.”

    My correspondent made it clear they were not talking about cash investment but rather doubted that there was an appetite among public library managers for the effort, comprehension, or support of such a proposal.

    3. Is there an equivalent retail take-up to give a lead to library leaders?

    (My response) “Swipe payment cards are being overtaken by phone payment. Applepay (powered by NFC) in the iPhone 6 shows that they certainly think they need to be in the NFC market – after resisting for ages while Jobs was alive. There are plenty of library “apps” around already – they could be supplemented by this functionality.”

    My correspondent commented, “We’re still struggling to take card payments – limited on the counters, none on the kiosks, no integration to LMS!!”

    4. What technical skills exist inside the organisations to support this any more than they would support ‘mix and match’ RFID components from different vendors, which you have also advocated?

    (My response) “I have long complained about the de-skilling of library tech services but there would be little requirement for additional skills to support a library app wouldn’t there?”

    Answer – “No idea – it is not part of the traditional Library IT skillset (diminishing in any case) and no appetite for Library Managers to develop it – they think it just ’emerges’ on top of the day job, which is largely sticking fingers in the omissions of dykes of the LMS and now RFID suppliers to keep things going.”

    5. Supply our own NFC devices, like some retailers with hand held barcode scanners – but far more now putting in fixed self-service devices?

    (My response) “If you wanted everybody to use this means you’d have to offer that option but my guess is that the mobile market hasn’t bottomed out yet and device costs will fall even farther. And currently not every library user can use a PC so there’s already two tier access in play.”

    6. What will come from the LMS vendors – e.g. RFID readers integrating straight into the LMS?

    (My response) Who knows? So far they’ve mostly ignored the potential of RFID but this is changing.
    (Their response) Yes – I’ve recently seen the first glimmer from an LMS supplier

    7. Suppliers with their own objectives – e.g. Bibliotheca with ‘MyCommunity’ and ‘Open+’?

    (My response) “You choose good examples. I can see why they wouldn’t want kiosks replaced – not because of library needs but their own ambitions in the rest of the public sector – but they will eventually move MyCommunity etc. to apps anyway IMO.”

    Response – They can’t take a £1,000+ cash Council Tax payment (it happens apparently) on an App…

    8. How many iPod Touch-based ‘Queue Busters’ have Bibliotheca sold? and, like the stock-take units of any RFID supplier, how many of those are sitting under the system administrator’s desk, unloved and unused?

    (My response) “Bibliotheca went for full-blown RFID scanners attached to devices (which I thought both expensive and unnecessary) rather than using the built-in NFC capabilities of some Android devices. Probably the Android market was too small to warrant an NFC solution at the time but this is changing fast.”

    9. Front line staff support for users with the multiplicity of user devices for basic WiFi surfing is rudimentary (and not a role formally acknowledged by management – nor staff support for kiosks, incidentally!) – what scope for sorting out user problems with NFC on the multiplicity of users own kit?

    (My response) “LA attitudes to networks are the biggest single problem here for sure. Problems with apps presumably happen already? Whoever supplies app (or software) is ultimately responsible for its operation. Librarians are possibly the least effective complainers in the industry – they have to improve – or hire technicians.”

    Answer – “Mick, if we complain, to suppliers, to management, we are in an awkward situation. We must be ‘nice’, we must be ‘reasonable’, no matter what the quality of the solution sold and no matter what quality of service is provided. The organisations are, IMO, primarily concerned with appearance and don’t understand what works and how it works (or doesn’t). Who wants to admit that all the library technology each authority has spent millions on since the 1970’s has, IMO, been inadequately deployed, run, used and exploited. Show me the RoI.

    Complain? Don’t make me laugh!


    It’s a depressing picture but an understandable one – from the point of view of those in the front line.

    It would be interesting to hear other’s views. Feel like making a contribution?

  • Personally I believe the biggest trigger for take-up of NFC (and many other developments) will be (or *should* be) open data and open web services, taking the relative enthusiasm of suppliers and librarians out of the question. Take-up will purely depend on whether users are interested or not.

    All the benefits of NFC in libraries depend upon integration points to the relevant LMS, and at the moment these are generally private rather than being open; developments are then dependant upon the budgets and motivations of the library/authority, and supplier capabilities. Perhaps understandable for academic/business libraries, but for public libraries will become unacceptable.

    If the relevant integrations were provided to users as open web services, with appropriate security features, then anyone could integrate an app against their library system. If someone wanted to go and take their phone into the library and self-checkout with it then they could, even if no-one else ever did. If they want to use the official library app to search the catalogue they can, or if they want to use a different one they should be able to as well.

    Typically people assume that open = security risk, but it often tends to be the opposite. Open systems can be scrutinised properly. Users who currently use the popular official apps assume that these must be secure but there’s little guarantee of it. An open set of web services that even did something as simple as enforce https would at least set a standard.

  • Thanks for the contribution Dave. Your reference to an open set of web services is particularly apposite since that’s exactly what can be delivered using the Library Communication Framework (LCF) which is mentioned extensively elsewhere on this site (so I won’t go into details here).

    Of course the links into library systems for circulation are already well established and even systems like Koha and Evergreen use the de facto ‘open’ standard SIP to exchange data between self service devices and the management system. NFC. Would simply allow the capture of the item ID and the setting of the security bits in a SIP configuration.

    Of course a hacker might simply set the security bit via NFC without doing any of this bug it would almost certainly be illegal to do so.

    Your comments about choice of library apps is well made. There’s no reason why anyone should be tied to one. Not sure whether NFC influences that decision of itself though.

  • Thanks for the response. And yes, the web services implementation of the LCF is particularly interesting, although it does feel (especially the authentication section) particularly geared towards an internal (or private) only implementation.

    The relation between NFC and having a choice of mobile apps was more that various NFC features would arrive and become popular (or not) without requiring any motivation from a set group of suppliers or libraries.

    And yes, someone could meddle with the security bit but I suppose they could also scribble in the margin of a book. It’s more likely they’ll do things properly given the choice to do it themselves.

  • Pingback: What can RFID do for me? | uowtechnews

Have a view? Please share!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.