Bibliographic Data on Tags – what, why, where?

rfidtag1The question of “what goes on the tag” has been occupying the list quite a bit this week. Prompted by an enquiry from Helen Jarvis at the University of Kent I wrote a short reply to try and explain my assertion that adding bibliographic data to tags was not necessarily a good idea. My invitation for someone to “tell me I’m an idiot” was enthusiastically accepted by Ivar Thyssen, Export Manager of PV Supa, who suggests that placing any bibliographic data on tags is, in fact, illegal.
I must confess that this came as something of a surprise to me but not as much of a surprise at it will be to those libraries that have already begun adding bibliographic data to tags. We’ll have to see how Ivar’s assertions stand up under scrutiny, since he has been invited to provide backing for this claim by Brian Green Executive Director of the ISBN agency but if he’s right the rules have just changed again.

So why is bibliographic data on tags such a contentious issue? For Ivar it is the books, as well as the orrowers that should not be identifiable.  One may suspect that this concern may be not entirely unconnected with his advocacy of ISO 28560-3 as opposed to the part 2 model adopted by the US and UK, but the issue is still worth further consideration.

Some libraries view RFID tags as being simply a replacement for the barcode. Often it is used because they are implementing self-service and believe that implementing RFID is a pre-requisite for doing so. In reality of course it’s perfectly possible to have self-service without RFID although there are undoubtedly some additional advantages to using it.

Once your items have been RFID tagged it’s only natural to start thinking about what else you could do with them – other than using them as a barcode replacement – and that’s where it all starts to get a bit confusing.

Any library using RFID (or barcodes for that matter) will, by definition, be using a library management system (LMS in the UK, ILS most other places). The LMS/ILS will contain all the data about your items, your staff and your clients. It is this that makes all the decisions about who can borrow which items, whether fines or charges are owed etc. The RFID system simply uses the barcodes or tags to tell the LMS what it is dealing with, and the LMS tells it what to do.

No data is being changed on the tags (except the security data, which is no concern of the LMS anyway) so there’s no need to worry about data synchronisation.

But many librarians, and at least two RFID companies, have begun to think about changing the rules. I had an email from an RFID company only recently which told me that they were advising their clients to add as much bibliographic data as possible to the tags. Another announced yesterday that adding the title of a work to tags was an integral part of their solution – (so they must be a little concerned about Ivar).  I have also seen suggestions, on the list, that we should start adding “date last circulated” or “number of times circulated” to the tags. One can see the attraction of being able to query a shelf of books with an RFID device and find out – without any reference to the LMS – which items should be weeded, replaced or have additional copies purchased.

So there’s a growing momentum for change – and for adding extra data to tags.

I’m not entirely against this. In fact I believe there are many ways in which LMS/ILS providers could significantly improve their offerings by using the tag’s data store, but I think agreement on what data elements we want to use and where on the tags we should store the data is a vital prerequisite. With this in place you have a better chance that, when you buy your next RFID system, it’ll be able to read your tags. That’s the purpose of the UK national profile that we are currently building for ISO 28560-2. More on this later…

All that said I doubt very much that I would include bibliographic data on my own list of data I want to add. Having two sets of data is a management nightmare! For starters how do you decide which of the two (tags and catalogue) is accurate, and how do you keep data synchronised? And, if you decide to change an entry (change of authority form of name for example), you have to make the change in the catalogue and on the tag – which means handling every item.

Most importantly, what benefits will data on tags give you as a librarian? (i.e. how do you plan to use it?) I can see some benefit for the RFID company as it might mean it’s the only way they can display information at the shelf, but at what additional cost (in terms of workload) for you? An alternative would be to have a report generated to extract  data from the catalogue and store it on a stock management device. Then, as you scan your shelves, the unit identifies the items by their barcode number and retrieves the content from its data store. I see no real need for data to also be stored on the items themselves.

But others will have other ideas so – at the risk of being called an idiot again – please let me hear them!

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