Standards – the best kept secret in the library world?
I was never very interested in standards myself. The very word suggested conformity, compliance, uniformity – all characteristics that I instinctively shy away from. So it took me some time to adjust to the idea that standards are a good thing, but not quite as long as it appears to be taking some of my colleagues in the library world.
A bit harsh? Let me explain…
Some years ago now I spent four years of my life working with suppliers to persuade them that it would eventually be worth their while to agree on common standards for RFID use rather than each deciding what was easiest for them. The work was carried out under the aegis of Book Industry Communication (BIC) a charity supported by publishers, booksellers and, yes, libraries. Originally founded many years ago to improve supply chain communications but nowadays very active in developing and promoting standards across a much wider area of the technology landscape.
In the library world BIC works with and is supported by the British Library, CILIP, a growing number of library authorities, and individual librarians as well as almost 100% of the companies supplying technological solutions to libraries in the UK and beyond.
Now I realise that 50% of my readers will stop at this point. Been there, done that they will say. Heard all about BIC, RFID, NFC, and the Library Communication Framework (LCF) from you many times before Mick.
Nothing more boring than RFID. And in some ways, they may be right. Well at least partially – about the boring bit. But there are good reasons why I have continued to promote standards and put up with the charges levelled at me on the lists – that I was trying to stifle innovation, or as one of my American critics believed was probably a communist sympathiser set on destroying the capitalist system. (I quite enjoyed that one to be honest).
Let me tell you about three of those reasons that still seem to be relevant now.
First is a difficulty that many libraries have faced over the years: that of changing RFID suppliers. With no national agency to advise them and a dearth of relevant skills amongst librarians it was the suppliers who were left to decide how best to deploy this new technology in the UK. This resulted in a proliferation of solutions with all sorts of data being stored in all sorts of ways. Even the occasional request from a librarian asking for some local information to be stored – which might be anything from a title to a use counter – was often acceded to without question – without anyone having the slightest notion about how this information might subsequently be kept up to date.
With no agreement on which elements should be stored on an RFID tag (or how it should be stored) there were always going to be problems reading (and sometimes even having to decode) data when new hardware was installed. When the second wave of self-service machines hit the market and librarians wanted to switch suppliers it quickly became apparent that there were (sometimes insuperable) problems to overcome. Sometimes hardware that had become obsolete overnight when a new RFID supplier was selected was even hidden away in cellars and cupboards.
That seemed to me rather wasteful – a common data standard would solve that problem.
Second was the growing interest in developing consortia. It was even being suggested that resources might eventually be shared nationally in much the same way as I had seen in Denmark years earlier. With a national library service infrastructure already in place (and how we’ve struggled to emulate that!) and underpinning it with a common data model the Danes effectively invented the international RFID data standard (ISO 28560) years before it was published. To follow their example seemed to me to be a ‘no brainer’.
Ten years on the Danes have a national public library service to be proud of whilst ours is essentially still in the research stage. Many solutions to this rather gloomy state of affairs are being considered – a single LMS being one of the most popular. The Danes by the way managed to build a national lending service without taking that step, and whilst we’re on the subject of Denmark I’ve not seen much evidence of stagnation, a lack of innovation or the overthrow of capitalism in Denmark either. So maybe standards worked well for them.
Third was the possibility that we might one day use different ways to interact with our collections. The ‘Internet of Things’ was being widely touted as being built at least partially on RFID foundations so the idea of libraries being ready for whatever might emerge by adopting national standards seemed like a good idea to me.
Three problems with the same solution – the adoption of standards – and not a standard dreamed up in some anonymous laboratory but one designed and built by librarians for librarians.
So imagine my disappointment earlier this week when I received in quick succession two emails from Ireland both asking me whether there was really any need for RFID standards (some Irish libraries use ISO 28560 and I had recommended they use it with their single LMS solution); followed the next day by one from a UK university telling me that they might have some difficulty taking advantage of a new ‘app’ on offer from D-Tech because their stock was not encoded with the UK data model.
The Irish want to find a better way to route their Inter Library loans, the university wants to use Smartphones to interact with their collections. Now I’m quite sure that their suppliers will find a way to work around the problem for these three libraries – and maybe the next three – but soon we could have almost as many different solutions to the same problem out there as there are libraries.
So why didn’t libraries engage with the standards? Maybe BIC let down its guard too soon? When I ended the series of RFID conferences I ran for several years for CILIP it was because I thought there was little left to say on the subject. I thought we must surely have reached every librarian in the country that wanted to invest in RFID.
Indeed, emboldened by our success in getting all the UK RFID suppliers to support our data model we switched our attention to tackling the more complex issue of building a new standard for interoperability to manage communication between all third party and LMS software solutions. (This is the Library Communication Framework.) We may have underestimated the ability of librarians to ignore free information.
On the other hand, we haven’t been so complacent about LCF. Launched in 2015 BIC has worked tirelessly ever since both to communicate its value to librarians and expand its potential. We’ve run advertising, given breakfast seminars, written articles and blogged on both sides of the Atlantic and even managed to get a slot at a CILIP conference (in Wales) but we still haven’t managed to communicate its value to most of the librarian member organisations – and through them to librarians themselves.
Suppliers have been much quicker to grasp its advantages. There seems to be more belief in the value of enabling systems to communicate among those that sell solutions than those who invest public funds in buying them. It’s not altruism, it’s business sense. No supplier wants to find themselves trapped in a technological cul-de-sac or constantly having to find new solutions to the same problem.
So how best to tackle the apparent disconnect between the work BIC is doing on behalf and with the assistance of, librarians and the actual deployment of the standards we have worked/are still working so hard to build? That was the question on my mind when I tweeted, with some exasperation last Thursday.
Happily my cri de coeur seems to have struck a chord with some – at least it has in Scotland where I am so happy I now live. At their invitation I’ll be writing emails to three organisations north of the border later today to ask if I can come and spread the word about both BIC and the standards I’ve mentioned above. I’m still hoping that one or two from further south may even follow suit before too long.
But in the meantime if you want to benefit from the new solutions currently hitting the market – like CollectionHQ’s Gizmo, DTech’s ‘AppIT’ or any of the other applications busily being planned to exploit the happy accident that is a Smartphones’ ability to use NFC to read (and write) to library RFID tags, it really is time for you to ‘get with the programme’.
For instance, if we are ever going to build a national infrastructure for sharing physical resources those resources will require unique IDs – and we don’t want to repeat the mistake we made when we realised that our borrower IDs weren’t unique – do we? (The way we fudged a solution to that problem that may still come back and bite us in the Smartphone age by the way.) But NFC can bring us many more benefits than that.
Ask anyone at BIC.