A Step in the Right Direction?

Apple’s recent announcement of the upcoming release of iOS 11 caused ripples of excitement across the RFID and NFC worlds – not least among those of us with an interest in libraries.

Sadly, on closer inspection the announcement still falls short of providing a means for libraries to fully exploit the NFC technology already resident in later iPhone models – and already available to Android users.Stripping away the technical jargon essentially what Apple have done is to allow their devices to read RFID tags. On the face of it this sounds like good news but Apple will only support the reading of tags in a specific format – called NDEF. This is a kind of “lowest common denominator” format that can carry data payloads in a standard format. To read a library tag with a smartphone requires the data on the tags to be stored in NDEF format – which it generally isn’t.

The NFC Forum identified the need for a means to read non-NDEF tags some time ago and identified libraries as one of the key sectors that would benefit from smartphone support of this activity. They suggested that,

“… an NFC app running on an NFC-enabled tablet can easily read the book title or ISBN number from the tag, thereby supporting a search for book reviews or summaries.”

(I can think of a whole host of other activities that would also be possible, not least the ability to self-issue items at the shelf.)

In 2015 they published something called NFC-V. Again – to keep it simple – this allows NFC readers in devices like smartphones to read tags that have been encoded using ISO/IEC 156693 – the format used by the majority of library RFID systems, including all of those currently in use in the UK’s public and academic libraries.

Android already supports NFC-V, Apple iOS 11 will not.

I’m a librarian using RFID why should I care?

  1. Cheaper self-service

One of the most expensive components of RFID self-service is the kiosk. To issues items in an RFID library you change data on the item tags. That’s what kiosks do. With a suitably equipped smartphone users can do this for themselves – greatly reducing the number of kiosks needed to manage borrowing. This is especially true of academic libraries where a higher proportion of readers have smartphones.

Security gates work in exactly the same way whether items are issued by phone or at a kiosk.

  1. Turning the collection into a discovery tool

Some libraries have already found ways to link shelf items to other resources – both within and without the library. At present an item has to be removed from the shelf and taken to a reading table in order to do this but with NFC-V enabled a reader would simply hold their phone against an item to be instantly directed at other resources/events/interest groups etc.

  1. Instant reviews/curated content

Already offered by some mobile apps (using the onboard camera and barcode recognition software) users could immediately have access to reader reviews or curated information about items (as identified by the NFC Forum above) simply by holding their phones against an item.

These are just some of ideas I’ve been sharing with library suppliers for some years now. They all tell me that without Apple making NFC-V available in iOS the sums just don’t add up and development is stalled. That hasn’t prevented one or two brave (and talented) individuals in our universities from building applications for Android but what we still need is some sign from Apple that they are considering giving greater priority to a technology that could significantly improve library users’ experience as well as increasing the value (and therefore sales) of iPhones across the global library user population (quite a big number I would think).

I’ll be talking to library suppliers about how we to persuade Apple to ‘do the right thing’ over the coming weeks.

If you use RFID in your library why not join us?


  • I’m a school librarian – all our pupils have and use smartphones all the time. For them to be able to use them in this way in the library would be amazing (although I am not sure about allowing them to self issue on their phones!) My stock is RFID tagged and we have self issue kiosks. I don’t understand all the tech-speak but this sounds like a great opportunity for school and academic libraries. Hope you get good results with the LMS suppliers – are you talking to AccessIt?

  • I’m sorry the tech-speak is still baffling. Didn’t even the 30 second summary help?

    I am talking to LMS suppliers but, like you, they aren’t really very interested in a technology that most of them don’t understand very well. There are a couple of companies that are exploring the potential of linking LMS directly to the collections in this way but neither currently offers an LMS. RFID companies tend not to be interested in mobile solutions because it impacts their sales of kiosks and scanners so it’s really left to librarians – and, well, me – to try and push things forward. I’m very grateful for the support I have already received from organisations outside of the library world – who see the same potential that you’ve recognised but without demand from librarians there’s really very little incentive for LMS or RFID companies to do anything to undermine their dominance of the automation market.

    On a practical level you have nothing to worry about from iPhone users at the moment. The point of the post is to point out that Apple still have no plans to allow iPhones to read the kind of tags most likely found in your library books.

    Your stock is most likely tagged with HF 13.56MHz tags as that is the most popular tag in use in libraries and the one for which international standards exist. I have however had discussions with RFID suppliers in the U.K. schools market before and some planned to offer UHF tags because they are cheaper so that’s not guaranteed.

    I have spoken to Access-it in New Zealand and Australia but not in the U.K. My survey of RFID supply tells me that Access-IT work primarily with FE Technologies in ANZ – a company that currently supplies mostly HF solutions – who were recently taken over by one of the world’s largest RFID companies Invengo. When I met the owner of Invengo in London last year he told me he thought UHF solutions might be better for libraries but there’s no sign of them switching yet.

    RFID seems to be too complicated for librarians to understand which is a pity as potentially it has much to offer. This has always baffled me a little as I think it’s really very straightforward. Once you understand what the suppliers want from it that is.

    One last point – and I’m sorry I can’t give you yes-no answers – whilst you may not want your students to issue items themselves you should be aware that anyone with an Android phone already possesses the ability to read and alter your tag data – if indeed they are HF 13.56 MHz. Whether they’re smart enough to do that (apps are freely available from the Play store) is another matter. It might be an idea to keep an eye on the smart ones though!

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