Post 3M – What’s the future for SIP? And for libraries?

A lot of people have been asking me what I think about the recent merger between Bibliotheca and 3M.

It’s an impossible question to answer easily and is usually prompted by a variety of concerns. How will customer service be affected? Will products (like the two e-book offers) be merged as well? How will the RFID market now develop? What’s happening to the staff? (Just a selection of the emails in my inbox recently.)

Obviously the answers to all of these questions will be answered in the fullness of time, and by those actually making the decisions not by some opinionated individual with an axe to grind. But there are some ‘big picture’ changes that I think are likely to be happening as a consequence and today I’d like to focus on just one of them – the future of SIP (the Standard Interchange Protocol).

There can be very few librarians – certainly very few in the UK or North America – who haven’t heard of SIP. It’s part of the development history of library systems – as z39.50 was for discovery systems – and like z39.50 has played a significant role in developing interoperability between some very differently designed library systems.

But it has also been holding back the development of RFID solutions from the very beginning.To understand why we need to remind ourselves why SIP was developed in the first place.

SIP was the result of 3M’s efforts to standardise communication between their early (non RFID) self-service machines and the library management systems to which they connect. As such it was concerned only with establishing the status of items being presented for loan. When 3M introduced RFID they did so to combine circulation and security in a single operation using data instead of magnetism to manage security. They did not however attempt to change the functionality it could deliver.

And that’s pretty much how things have stayed for 25 years or so. SIP drives the circulation transaction, RFID handles the security.

RFID is actually a pretty expensive way to manage such a simple process but it works, looks modern and librarians have been in love with it for years. Until now.

Suddenly new pressures acting on the library market are changing the way we to think about RFID.

The first of these is of course financial. Buying in self-service is still a very popular response from local authorities seeking to cut their costs. Often this goes hand-in-hand with staff cuts – the machines do the work of lending and returning stock and volunteers can do the re-shelving. The big appeal of this approach is the transfer of recurring costs (the staff) to capital expenditure (the machines). There’s always money around for ‘invest to save’ projects, far less for providing professional staff to provide a “comprehensive” service (however the government of the day chooses to interpret that). Looking ahead it’s difficult to see past the likelihood of more councils short-sightedly spending more money on self-service machines to keep fewer and fewer libraries open.

Librarians are becoming disenchanted with self-service – it costs them their jobs.

But councils are likely to consider more RFID (or rather self-service) as the best way of supporting the government’s agenda by cutting costs. Just maybe they might pause to consider whether spending all that money on book lending machines is really delivering an adequate return on their RFID investment? Of course to do that they would need the expert advice of their librarians to tell them how the technology could deliver a more efficient and effective service at lower cost. If there are any left to ask…

Pressure also comes, perhaps surprisingly, from the suppliers.

Since 2011 and the domestic market’s wholesale adoption of the UK data model RFID suppliers have begun to realise the wider potential of the technology for delivering new products and services. Having a single data model has enabled their developers to plan to deliver new functionality against a single, known tag standard. (It has also enabled some librarians to change suppliers without having to re-tag or re-program all their existing stock).

And with so much investment in self-service over the past ten years suppliers are beginning to run out of opportunities to sell new systems. They need to find new ways to use RFID to deliver new services and solutions.

For librarians another problem is that suppliers are rapidly running out of librarians to whom they can sell them – so they are talking to directly to councils. That has tended to shift the emphasis for service development away from improving the library service toward expanding the range of council services that can be delivered in the library building.

Librarians tend to regard RFID with suspicion because it doesn’t deliver a better library service.

And that’s at least in part because of SIP. (Remember SIP? This is a blog about SIP)*

Because SIP was originally designed to help 3M sell more self-service circulation machines it has proved very resistant to being adapted to deliver much else. When 3M donated the protocol to NISO two years ago they originally hoped that the NISO ‘imprimatur’ on their newly developed version 3.0 would rekindle a flagging US market. Sadly for them this strategy appears to have failed thus far. SIP 3.0 is still nowhere to be seen (although rumours of its death may be exaggerated).

In the meantime Bibliotheca have effectively taken over 3M’s library business – and in the process become the largest RFID supplier in the USA.

Now like 3M, Bibliotheca systems still have to rely on SIP to manage much of the communication between them and the LMS systems that still handle the decision-making process. But unlike 3M, Bibliotheca have been one of the most enthusiastic supporters for removing the limitations of SIP since they first arrived on the library market scene. One of the ways they plan to do this is by using BIC’s Library Communication Framework to develop new functionality for their RFID installations.I’m sure they have others.

The future of SIP looks very insecure right now. Even if NISO do eventually publish a new version of the protocol it is unlikely to move forward the functionality of library systems (or RFID) by a single byte. With 3M in the process of leaving the library stage SIP’s greatest advocate has gone. Fortunately what remains is an opportunity (using LCF) rather than a void. Will Bibliotheca use its undoubtedly strong global influence to change the way we use RFID through LCF? I really hope so – for their sake as well as the market’s.

To really gain true value from RFID we need several things:

A common data framework that is open to all (LCF);

A major supplier dedicated to using that framework (we have several – including Bibliotheca);

An informed library workforce that understands how the technology works so that they, and not the suppliers, drive the demand for development (not sure about that)

and,

Buyers that have the wit and wisdom to make informed decisions (well 2.5 out of 3 isn’t bad).

So what do I think about Bibliotheca’s take-over of 3M? Well it gives me more hope for the future development of our library services than the alternatives.

 

 

*acknowledgement to Arlo Guthrie for adapting the line from Alice’s Restaurant.

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