Do we need a UK Library User’s Guide to RFID?

As regular readers will know I have been working closely with an organisation called Book Industry Communication (BIC) – a charity supported by both the book trade and the library community – for many years. BIC’s mission is, as the name suggests, to improve communication across all sectors of the book trade (including electronic) and has been instrumental in establishing many of the standards now used in libraries.

This post has been inspired in part by an email from Kathy Settle. In a three-way discussion about BIC’s recent report on RFID privacy she commented that the sample poster template included at the foot of the web page (for use in libraries to help inform users about the potential risks associated with RFID tags) , “If it was my mum reading it, I’d think she would be very confused – and worse, very worried – about what this all means”.

She has a point. The public aren’t included in the long list of people for whom the guidance is intended – but it does suggest ways in which libraries should inform their users that RFID is being used by the staff.

By pure coincidence I received an email this morning from a library user who is writing his own application to interact directly with library stock. I can’t tell you what he wants to do with it in case he plans to sell it to other members of the public, but I can at least assure you that it is an entirely innocent idea that has some merit.

This may sound surprisingly ambitious – after all librarians have been rather slow to recognise the potential that now sits on their shelves – but such initiatives are likely to become increasingly more frequent as the public recognise that most of the stock on the shelves of our libraries are wide open to exploitation by anyone with a smartphone app.

Why a ‘UK’ guide? Well almost 100% of UK libraries now use essentially the same technology and standards whether they know it or not, so this guide will work for almost 100% of UK library users. There’s no mention of data models, frequencies, encryption, or any of the myriad other variables that make RFID sound more complicated than it is – and which have led to other countries choosing different paths to RFID deployment.

This guide is different from everything else I have written about RFID over the past 10 years or so. It is much shorter, and is for the individual who wants to write their own app as well as the ordinary citizen who just wants to borrow a book.

And of course it’s for Kathy’s mum.

A UK Library User’s Guide to RFID

What’s RFID?

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. Your library uses it to keep track of its books etc. It’s a very simple idea with a huge range of applications so you probably already have some form of it in your possession already. If you have a bus pass, travelcard (like Oyster), a bank card that you can just wave at a terminal or a library book the chances are that it has RFID on board.

There are lots of different kinds of RFID but they all have two things in common – they use a ‘chip’ to store information and an aerial (attached to the chip) to send and receive information. The ones in your library books are about the size of a credit card and are called ‘tags’.

Why is my library using RFID?

Well according to the findings of surveys that I used to carry out annually almost 100% of them are using it to allow you to borrow items from the library without the need to trouble a member of staff. Libraries call this “self-service circulation” and it’s a bit like using the self-service device to buy goods in a supermarket except that you don’t have to pay and you use a radio scanner to read a library RFID tag instead of an optical scanner to read a supermarket barcode.

Like supermarkets libraries still do use barcodes to manage their stock sometimes although the information in the barcode is also present on the tag – plus a whole lot more. The main reason libraries switched from barcodes to tags was to improve security. Before RFID libraries tried a variety of ways to protect themselves from theft – the most popular was something called ‘tattle-tape’ – a magnetic strip hidden in a stock item that could be magnetised and de-magnetised. Security gates at library exits used magnetic waves to detect any item being removed illegally. The system worked well but required expensive and bulky electromagnets to arm and disarm the strips. RFID simply writes a code to each tag to specify whether it can be borrowed or not.

RFID security devices often resemble the earlier electromagnetic ones but work in a completely different way so you cannot ‘mix and match’ the two technologies.

Is RFID harmful?

The technology has been in use for more than half a century without any reports of any impact on health and the voltages used to run RFID systems are very much lower than those used by electromagnetic devices.

Why does my library want me to know if they are using RFID?

The European Union issued a mandate some years ago that recommends that libraries (and other establishments) notify their users if RFID technology is in use in a location to enable them to assess any personal risk to their privacy.

Are there risks to my privacy?

Because data is being broadcast over the airwaves there is the possibility that a third party could intercept messages exchanged between your books and the library’s self-service devices.

However most libraries do not record any data that can be traced to an individual on their RFID tags. Anyone seeking to discover what someone is reading would also have to gain access to the library’s database in order to decode what would otherwise be just a stream of numbers flying through the ether. It is nonetheless a level of risk that the EU feels deserves advertisement by the library.
Your membership card by the way is still most likely to be using the ‘old’ technology barcodes which cannot be read by radio.

Is RFID used for anything else?

Some librarians have been very creative in finding ways to exploit RFID technology and use it for much more than issuing and returning stock. There are examples all over the internet and elsewhere in this blog. None of them offer any additional threat to library users over and above that mentioned above.


So that’s my attempt at a user’s guide to RFID. I am aware that it will not apply to everyone but I think it works quite well for the majority of UK libraries. My thanks to Kathy’s mum for taking the time to read it and offer some helpful suggestions – likewise to Kathy for finding the time to do likewise.

A final word for librarians

If there are any additional concerns about public interaction with the library they should be troubling librarians rather than the public. The reason for my saying this concerns recent advances in a technology called NFC (short for Near Field Communication) that have resulted in many smartphones being able to read and write to library tags. As I indicated at the start of this post some members of the public are already using this capability to develop their own apps to interact with library stock. For the moment this appears to be for purely benign reasons.

But that could change of course.

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.

Complicated. Expensive.

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.

British Library to scope Single Digital Presence for U.K. Public Libraries

“The British Library is to lead an 18-month scoping project to establish the demand for and possible shape of a ‘single digital presence’ for UK public libraries. 

Funded by Arts Council England and the Carnegie UK Trust, the project will investigate user expectations and demand for what a national online platform for public libraries might deliver, and will explore the network of stakeholder groups and organisations best placed to make it a reality.” (Full text here)

For reasons I still cannot quite fathom the theme from Star Wars began playing in my head as I read this announcement last week. Perhaps inspired by a new hope or possibly the realisation that a force was awakening – either way it took me somewhat by surprise, especially as the announcement went on to mention that,

“The scoping project will build on the work of the Single Digital Libraries Presence Steering Group…”

Wait a minute – wasn’t that the name of the group of which I was a member? I checked my notes and found this snippet from the minutes of its last meeting in April 2016.

“The issue of achieving wider engagement with suppliers was discussed. Mick Fortune offered to organise preliminary discussions using his BIC network (as all but one of the major suppliers were already members of BIC) with a view to identifying a single representative to attend future steering group meetings.”

Clearly Carnegie and the British Library had been very busy since then – but it soon became clear from social media and my mailbox that some people remembered my involvement with the Steering Group and were wondering what had happened to that idea of meeting with suppliers – and why had I thought it might be useful in the first place?

So here’s the story – so far…


Following the meeting in April BIC (Book Industry Communication to give it its full name) agreed to take up my suggestion that we start talking to the SDLPSG but to meet first with Kathy Settle (CEO of the Libraries Taskforce). I was personally very eager for this meeting to take place as I thought there was more potential for progress than both sides probably believed at the time. (I’ll explain my reasons for thinking this later.)

That meeting was facilitated by Kathy and her team and took place in Whitehall at the end of June 2016 with both parties agreeing that it was a very positive encounter. BIC members were keen to tell Kathy about the efforts they were making to improve system interoperability through initiatives like the Library Communication Framework (LCF), products and services that were already available to libraries that might be deployed to improve the user experience and the frustrations of a procurement process that still depended heavily on ticking off the required elements in a completely outdated UK Core Specification and consequently missed any opportunity to talk about developing the service. (I think both parties were slightly surprised to discover how much their thinking overlapped.)

Since then we have held several more meetings and the group has now expanded to include the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), industry experts and many other interested parties including – at our most recent meeting in Rugby in July – the British Library’s PLR agency. The philosophy of the group has been very much to try and get anyone with a contribution to make around the table.

I was pleased to receive an email on behalf of the group late last week informing me that the British Library plans to talk to us once the project is underway.


That’s the ‘what’, now here’s the ‘why’.

My belief that dialogue with existing suppliers of library systems infrastructure – be that LMS, RFID, mobile apps, or any of the many specific applications that interact with one another in the library systems arena – is likely to be of benefit to the process of building a Single Digital Presence (SDP) is based primarily on my experiences over recent years with projects involving both Scottish and Irish public libraries. Granted almost 30 years as a supplier also plays its part but for the past 10+ years I have been working both through BIC and as a campaigner to try and preserve and even dare to try and develop the public library service.

My experiences in Scotland and Ireland tended to reinforce the discoveries uncovered by BiblioCommons, the SDLPSG and the round table discussion that was the immediate genesis of the new BL project.

The first problem in almost every discussion I have about SDP is – what exactly is it? Attempts at a definition tend to reflect the interest of the definer. Providers of websites offering access to online union catalogues may see it as another website providing access to library holdings whether physical or digital. A digital content provider – like e-books or online reference tools – will most likely see it as providing easier access to their content via any means possible, an LMS provider (and those familiar with managing them) may see it as being a single LMS to run a nation’s libraries.

The consumer (remember them?) probably doesn’t care so much about what form content takes they just want it to be easy to find and use. And I suspect that’s essentially what the SCL wanted when it asked BiblioCommons to carry out their consultancy on building their SDP. The trouble was that BiblioCommons was at the time a commercial organisation that made its money primarily by developing highly customised interfaces to other people’s systems running in a single library service.  So unsurprisingly they defined SDP as being an overlay (probably theirs) to run across the full range of online resources that might be provided in a modern library. All of this was to be an additional charge over and above the cost of buying and maintaining all of the subsidiary systems that would underlay the BiblioCommons ‘wrap’ and would need to be scaled up to handle the entire public library service…

Not quite what you might call an truly integrated solution to the problem but the report did raise some important points that the new British Library scoping project will doubtless consider.

Not the least of these is governance. Let me explain why I think this is so important.

In recent times the idea of a single LMS to run a national library service has become very popular. Personally I have grave doubts about the wisdom of this approach – commercial monopolies rarely see continuous development as being as vital as those that have to differentiate themselves from the competition. I am not opposed to the idea of a single LMS – the US State of Georgia successfully implemented an Open Source solution across its public libraries some years ago but I believe it succeeded because the state took ownership of the system and continues to develop it on behalf of Georgia residents.

This was essentially the thinking behind the Scottish Library and Information Council’s SEDAR project and five years ago I was asked to carry out an evaluation of progress so far.

SEDAR (Stirling and East Dunbartonshire Area Resource) was an attempt to deliver a cost-effective national solution for Scottish public libraries. Open Source solutions were very popular at the time – partly in the (often mistaken) belief that they are much cheaper to buy and run – and four library services had already signed up to use Evergreen. The hope was that all Scottish libraries would eventually run on a single system but the project was encountering difficulties. My brief was to find out why and make recommendations for fixing them.

I discovered that the addition of each new authority’s holdings had led to discrepancies in the catalogue and consequently to how information was displayed. A growing list of workarounds to overcome the problems were making the system increasingly unwieldy to use. The fourth service to join the consortium had added a long list of new requirements that would be difficult and probably costly to implement.

My conclusion was that the system would always need some modifications to accommodate emerging local requirements but that this ought to be readily achievable given compromise and a reasonable degree of co-operation between authorities. To manage this problem required strong governance and an agreed set of rules by which such delicate matters as “who pays what” and “who decides which modifications are made”.

My principal recommendation was that the consortium should improve its governance structure before any more authorities joined the project. I made many other recommendations concerning the maintenance and development of the product but these were less significant.

SEDAR still exists, but only in a very limited form – and the dream of a national LMS is still in abeyance.

Irish libraries approached the idea of a national LMS from a different perspective with their Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) taking the lead on behalf of all public libraries in the Republic. In 2013 I was asked to help the librarians identify a provider that might meet the requirements of a document for a single national LMS that I was told had been prepared by IT professionals working on behalf of the agency.

Irish libraries chose to implement a single LMS.

The problems the librarians were facing were firstly that there did not appear to be any existing system on the market at that time that would operate in the way defined in the requirement (something I was able to confirm) and secondly that there was no real consensus among the different library authorities as to the kind of solution they wanted. They had also only allowed 30 days to resolve their dilemma.

In the event it took almost a year to reach some kind of accommodation and produce an enormously complex specification that satisfied everybody. I have no idea how the evaluation was finally made as my involvement ended with the issue of the tender but the project continues and appears, after some teething troubles, to be going well. It’s a brave experiment that I believe was only made possible because of the existence of a single agency taking responsibility for system acquisition and maintenance. Governance and funding working as one.

Even the problems encountered by the Irish could be overcome by the existence of strong central governance and funding but in the UK we have a completely different situation. Libraries compete for a share of the local budget and tend to do best where funding is maintained at a reasonable level. Where funds are cut and the service pared to the bone they don’t do so well. Building a national model on such diverse and shaky foundations – with no central backing or funding – seems almost an impossible task. Delivering a 21st century library service is the real aim – and it will be difficult – but the first task for the British Library is likely to be to either establish what exactly is meant by a “Single Digital Presence” or abandon the concept altogether and focus on what can already be improved and identify what is to be delivered in the (near) future.

It is the fragmented nature of the public library service that led me some time ago to the conclusion that to try and build a national platform by starting with the library authorities would be too difficult. Even OCLC with its enormous reach and resources had achieved only limited success for its equally limited (but entirely laudable) aims.

When I helped set up Voices for the Library (VFTL) back in 2010 I believed that austerity would inevitably lead to a dogfight for local funds that would be unlikely to be won by librarians. Our aim, I recall saying, should be to try and get the public to view their library service with the same passion and affection as they viewed the NHS. Ah, but I was young(er) then…

My experience with VFTL taught me that there were far too many visions of what a library service might offer for me to be able to make any realistic positive contribution to their future welfare.

There are probably fewer than 30 companies providing automated systems in the UK. There may be ten times that number of library authorities , including trusts and volunteer-run libraries. Easier by far then to try and build closer co-operation and better interfaces between existing systems. Build the future service one system at a time.

It seemed to be a much simpler task. All BIC would have to do was convince suppliers to use new and open protocols, attract the attention of the Taskforce and the SCL – which we did. Librarians would then naturally support our efforts by insisting on BIC standards – which mostly they haven’t.

Ah well. 3 out of 4 isn’t bad.


NFC, RFID and creating better libraries

I’m being told that my piece on NFC yesterday (below) was too difficult for librarians to understand so here’s a shorter non-technical summary:
1. For libraries to really start seeing benefits from RFID + mobile technologies we need Apple to add a small piece of code to their iOS operating system.

2. Android already has it.

3. If iPhones had it too developers would see more value in building apps that would reduce dependence on RFID kiosks and greatly enhance the user experience.

4. Let’s ask Apple to catch up.
I’ve also been asked if any of this has any implications for  privacy. Well NFC certainly could although the risk would be lower than conventional RFID due to the short range nature of the technology.

Any queries – please add a comment.



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?

2016 Library RFID Survey Results – Rest of the World

This year’s survey was not actively promoted outside of the English-speaking world. Without the support of suppliers and others it is frankly beyond my means and ability to attempt a truly global survey.

Nevertheless a few readers of my blog and followers on Twitter did take the time and trouble to answer the survey in English – and I am extremely grateful for their support.

With such limited numbers it is not possible to gain any kind of accurate picture of the international scene but the answers are nonetheless interesting.countries

There were 7 responses from 4 different countries.types

Library types were mixed – including the only National Library to have responded to this year’s survey.uses

Despite the low numbers one obvious difference between these European libraries and their counterparts in the UK, ANZ and North America is the extent to which RFID is being deployed. Everyone uses RFID to prevent theft with only one not also using it for circulation but beyond these two functions the number of libraries using RFID for User Identification, monitoring in-house use of stock and automated materials handling were all proportionately higher than outside of the European market.suppliers

Bibliotheca+3M were once again in the majority in these European libraries with both Nedap and Autocheck appearing for the first time in this survey – both in the Netherlands. One other Dutch supplier – that I know very well! – also completed the survey but their answers are not included as I was only looking for the opinions of librarians.

All the respondents use HF frequency solutions and all use SIP to communicate with their library management software. Only one also used an API to deliver additional functionality.

Only Bibliotheca+3M libraries replied in sufficient numbers to be worth analysis and their results are given in the following table,

Poor Not very good Good enough Very good
Answering helpdesk calls? 0% 0% 100% 0%
Responding to development requests? 0% 50% 50% 0%
Quality of their advice? 0% 0% 75% 25%
Resolution of hardware problems? 0% 0% 75% 25%
Quality of project management? 0% 0% 50% 50%
Response to equipment failures? 0% 25% 50% 25%
Response to software problems? 0% 25% 50% 25%
Speed of implementation? 0% 0% 75% 25%
Relationship with your ILS/LMS/ILMS provider 0% 0% 75% 25%


Finally three libraries had found other uses for their self-service kiosks – all three allowing users to make catalogue enquiries. No-one used their kiosks for non-library services and no-one had, so far, allowed library users to use NFC equipped smartphone in conjunction with stock.

There were no additional comments.


2016 Library RFID Survey Results – North America

A very low response from the USA this year, but a better one from Canada so I have combined the responses from both countries to produce a view of the North American market as a whole.types

A total of 24 organisations responded 18 from the USA and 6 from Canada. In both countries the public sector appears to have invested most heavily in RFID (100% in Canada). The ‘Other academic’ category comprised 3 community colleges and 1 research institution.uses


Circulation and theft prevention tied for the most popular use of RFID at 23 each. Both collection management (13), and automated materials handling (12) were more popular than in previous surveys, AMH significantly higher than in either of the other international markets examined so far. Each of the bottom four applications listed here represents only one library – relatively lower than in the other markets examined.frequencies

North American users appear to be much better informed about the frequencies they use in their library RFID solutions. Only 1 library claimed to be using UHF supplied by a company that does not supply this option. The rest either identified HF as their chosen frequency or did not answer the question.ils

Dependence on SIP in North America is the highest of all the markets analysed. Only one library was not using SIP – 4 used both SIP and APIs. The most common use of APIs appears to be in conjunction with Automated Materials Handling (AMH). This is an area of library activity that in the USA in particular appears to be more open to competition than elsewhere with several respondents indicating that they had purchase an AMH solution from a different supplier to that which supplied their other RFID applications.suppliers

A very similar pattern to the UK and again completely different to Australia and New Zealand Bibliotheca+3M dominate the North American market. (All the Canadian libraries that replied were their clients except one that declined to give a name).

The list of ILS/RFID partnerships is as follows,



Innovative Interfaces & Bibliotheca+3M 5
SirsiDynix & Bibliotheca+3M 4
Ex Libris & Bibliotheca+3M 2
Polaris & Bibliotheca+3M 2
Evergreen & Bibliotheca+3M 1
Polaris & Envisionware 1
Polaris & Techlogic 1
SirsiDynix & Checkpoint 1
SirsiDynix & Sentry 1
SirsiDynix & Techlogic 1
TLC & Techlogic 1


Supplier satisfaction tables for each of the nine areas assessed follow below,










I asked respondents if they wished to make any additional comments about supplier performance. There were a few (5) concerns expressed about the changes at Bibliotheca+3M – about the same percentage as in the UK. I’ve omitted those from those from this very short list,

  • We’ve ended up developing local expertise for our sorting system, and call (our supplier) much less frequently.
  • Ordering RFID tags takes forever! Communication is terrible. Wrong send to name, shipped to wrong address, no response, etc.


Only one (Canadian) library indicated that their members had access to NFC applications that interacted directly with library stock, which allowed them to  discover related items. Four used self-service kiosks for operations other than circulation, one for booking library assets and two for catalogue enquiries, the remaining one did not say what else they did. No libraries used library kiosks for non-library purposes.

Finally, respondents were asked to share any additional thoughts they might have about the survey or RFID in general. There was only one reply – from Canada,

  • I would like to see smartphone apps that will check out library materials and disarm the security to cut down on the need for self check out stations, etc.

2016 Library RFID Survey Results – Australia and New Zealand

Having visited several Australian and New Zealand libraries over the past ten years I understand that there are very significant differences between the two countries! However, in terms of the supply and deployment of RFID technology they are very much closer to each other than to other significant library RFID markets so I hope my ANZ followers will forgive me for analysing their results together.types

A total of 79 organisations responded to this year’s survey 66 from Australia and 13 from New Zealand. In both countries the public sector appears to have invested most heavily in RFID (although the figure for New Zealand was slightly lower at 63%). This contrasts sharply with the picture in the UK where universities have long been in the majority – certainly in terms of their willingness to complete the survey!uses


Circulation (76) is once again the major use of RFID with theft prevention (63) in second place. These are followed by collection management (42), and monitoring stock use in the library (33), access control (10) is however much less popular than in the UK while acquisition and accession handling (22) and automated materials handling (18) are both relatively more widely deployed.frequencies

As I have mentioned elsewhere my reason for including this question is twofold. Knowing the frequency s probably the single most important thing to understand about an RFID installation so the answers to this question help me gain an understanding of how much librarians understand about the technology. A secondary reason is to assess the extent of the library UHF market.

In Australia and New Zealand, like the UK, the probability of libraries using UHF is low (although there are more UHF suppliers) as major RFID suppliers in the two counties only supply HF solutions. Of the 15% that reported using UHF solutions 75% said they bought them from FE Technologies, the rest were equally divided between Bibliotheca+3m and Checkpoint whilst one declined to give the name of their supplier.sip

Dependence on SIP in Australia and New Zealand is significantly higher than in the UK (it will be interesting to see the US numbers). Both libraries that reported using an API were clients of the same supplier (FE Technologies) though neither appeared to be using functionality over and above that already supported by SIP (and both reported using SIP as well).  It would be interesting to know what the APIs are being used to provide but only one of the respondents indicated a willingness to be contacted while the other has not replied to my enquiry.suppliers

A chart that speaks for itself. FE Technologies were already the major force in the market when I conducted the last survey in 2014 and their acquisition by Invengo appears to have increased their momentum significantly.

FE Technologies dominance of the market almost renders comparative analysis redundant but there is always a demand for information about which ILS and RFID suppliers work with each other so here’s that list,



SirsiDynix & FE Technologies 18
Libero & FE Technologies 8
Softlink & FE Technologies 8
Civica & FE Technologies 5
Access IT & FE Technologies 4
AMLIB & FE Technologies 3
Ex Libris & FE Technologies 3
OCLC & FE Technologies 3
SirsiDynix & Bibliotheca+3M 3
Civica & Bibliotheca+3M 2
Aurora & FE Technologies 1
Capita & Checkpoint 1
Civica & Envisionware 1
Innovative Interfaces & FE Technologies 1
Koha & Bibliotheca+3M 1
Kotui & FE Technologies 1
Softlink & Envisionware 1


The remaining charts show the results for one of the main areas of interest for librarians – supplier performance. I asked how well each performed against nine criteria. Each bar represents the percentage of users of each solution expressing that opinion.











I also asked respondents if they wished to make any additional comments about supplier performance. Here’s what they said,

  • We had unacceptable service from 3M here in NZ, and from other libraries I’ve spoken to, our situation is not unique. 3M are now out of libraries in NZ, and have handed over to Bibliotheca.
  • Bug fixes seem to take a long time to be developed
  • I find that from the purchase of the item to the installation, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of communication between the sales person and the installer.
  • It took some weeks to resolve all issues on a branch new kiosk this year.
  • The provider responds to problems quite well, HOWEVER, the problems we have with the product are huge. Every day there is something that doesn’t work and we are tired of calling and calling to have things fixed.
  • It is proving much more difficult & far slower than it should be to get our RFID provider, our library consortia’s tech helpdesk and our LMS provider to communicate with each other to resolve interop issues between our RFID gear and the LMS, and to keep us (the library) in the loop. This feels like pulling teeth.
  • We find that the company don’t follow through unless we push them and keep on contacting them.
  • Communication is below standard
  • Response times have improved
  • They are quick to answer calls and log them, but fixing problems tends to take a long time


Only two libraries indicated that their members had access to NFC applications that interacted directly with library stock, one of them for self-issue and the other for discovering items related to items in hand. Ten reported using the self-service kiosks for operations other than circulation, two for booking library assets and five for catalogue enquiries, the remaining three did not indicate the other purposes for which they were used. One library reported using library kiosks for non-library purposes but declined to say what these might be.

Finally, respondents were asked to share any additional thoughts they might have about the survey or RFID in general. This is what they said. I have emphasised areas to which I will return in my final summary of these results at the end of the week.

  • I don’t think libraries are currently using RFID to its full potential. Having worked at several RFID enabled libraries, they mostly use them as barcode replacements. I’m still waiting for the next level innovative use of RFID technology. Additionally, while our RFID system doesn’t directly use SIP2 to communicate with our LMS, the SIP2 connection is antiquated by today’s standards. No secure encryption, limited query fields to name but a few. Direct APIs or the fabled ‘SIP3’ with https enabled has been too long coming. I have questioned RFID vendors who use SIP2 to send client data to off site servers about security and have got unsatisfactory answers.
  • We are building a new library and will not be installing RFID.
  • We are very happy with our RFID system and our customers take up of it.
  • We’re keen to see what opportunities that the combination of NFC & our new web-based LMS can offer us in terms of enabling mobile library / pop-up library functionality, fully connected to real-time circulation functionality. However, it seems that we’ll need to initiate our own investigations to go down this path, as neither our RFID provider nor our LMS provider have as yet laid out any ready-to-go plans / offerings on how to do this, or intimated that such things are in the works. In any event, we figure that this should be possible with minimal capital outlay, once we can put the pieces together (NFC-enabled smartphone / tablet, & NFC / barcode apps that integrate well with the LMS).
  • We love the (supplier’s) RFID system as it is user friendly for the customers and it is a very reliable system but we get frustrated with the consistency of support the company provides. We feel we have to keep sending messages asking for an update on the situation.

This survey required a technical knowledge that I don’t have. I was not the person who managed the implementation of the RFID technology, they have since left.  I manage the technology and when there is a problem I report it to the help

2016 Library RFID Survey Results – UK

A total of 115 UK organisations responded to this year’s survey – down from the 144 that completed the last survey in 2014. This is perhaps not too surprising partly because this year’s survey received no external support or publicity and partly because of the growth of consortia. In London for example there was no response from London Library Consortium (LLC) members – previously most members had replied individually. This may in part account for the apparent decline of the public library sector’s share of the library RFID market.types

A total of 57 universities and 41 public libraries replied this year. This is far from being a representation of the numbers of UK libraries using the technology. In 2014 I aggregated responses from all the previous surveys and listed 141 public libraries that were known to be using RFID then. It seems unlikely that any of them have disposed of the technology since so the real number is likely to be even higher now.

Other sectors represented include Health (6), Other Academic (mainly 6th form colleges), Schools (2) and one that self-identified as being both public and school.uses

As might be expected circulation (105) remains the major use of RFID with theft prevention (81) following close behind. However other uses are clearly on the increase with collection management (42), monitoring stock use in the library (35), accession/acquisition management (22) and automated materials handling (mostly sorting) (22) becoming more common than in previous years.frequencies

This is one of my pet questions and has appeared in every survey since they began. My reason for including it is in part to try and assess the level of understanding of the technology among librarians and partly to track the spread of UHF solutions in the global library market.

In the UK the probability of libraries using UHF is actually quite low as all of the major RFID suppliers in the country only supply HF solutions. Of the 13% that reported using UHF solutions 67% said they bought them from Bibliotheca+3M, 20% from 2CQR while 13% did not identify their supplier at all.sip

A question designed to determine how dependent the industry is on the SIP protocol.

All RFID solutions (for the moment) rely on data exchange with the LMS to determine what course of action they should take with every transaction. Historically (the protocol is 30 years old now) this has been achieved using the Standard Interchange Protocol (SIP) originally designed by 3M. More recently we have seen a growth in the use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to provide additional functionality unsupported by SIP.suppliers

In previous years the overall share had been dominated by Bibliotheca and 3M and the newly combined company still retains the lion’s share of the market. 2CQR and D Tech continue to provide the main competition but two new players have emerged since 2014 – Solus and SA Secure (each reported by a single library).

Axiell’s showing remains quite low despite the changes in their supply model that I reported on earlier in the year. Paradoxically – given Axiell’s advertised intent to be a one-stop shop for LMS and RFID their only showings as an LMS supplier in this year’s survey showed them paired with D Tech and Bibliotheca+3M whilst their single RFID site uses Civica’s LMS. The full list of LMS/RFID pairings is as follows (LMS first):


Ex Libris & Bibliotheca+3M 16
SirsiDynix & Bibliotheca+3M 14
Capita & Bibliotheca+3M 13
Axiell & Bibliotheca+3M 8
Innovative Interfaces & Bibliotheca+3M 7
IS (Oxford) & 2CQR 4
Civica & Bibliotheca+3M 3
Capita & 2CQR 2
Innovative Interfaces & 2CQR 2
IS (Oxford) & Bibliotheca+3M 2
PTFS/Liblime & Bibliotheca+3M 2
SirsiDynix & 2CQR 2
SirsiDynix & DTech 2
Axiell & DTech 1
Capita & DTech 1
Civica & 2CQR 1
Civica & Axiell 1
Evergreen & Bibliotheca+3M 1
Ex Libris & 2CQR 1
Ex Libris & DTech 1
Infor & Bibliotheca+3M 1
Innovative Interfaces & DTech 1
IS (Oxford) & DTech 1
Koha & Bibliotheca+3M 1
Softlink & Bibliotheca+3M 1

The next section of the survey focused on customer service. Responders were invited to assess their RFID supplier’s performance in nine areas. I have excluded Axiell, Solus and SA Secure from the analysis since only one customer replied for each of them. Whilst there may well be more customers out there for all three I have no way of knowing, and since I guarantee the anonymity of everyone’s responses I have no choice but to exclude these three companies to protect the identity of my contributors.

The results for 2CQR, Bibliotheca+3M and D Tech follow in the next nine tables.










In addition to asking respondents to assess specific areas of supplier performance I also invited them to make any additional comments they felt might be relevant.

The following is a selection of the more printable comments.

Perhaps unsurprisingly (change is always difficult) there was considerable concern over the merger of Bibliotheca and 3M. I have not included them here to protect their author’s anonymity. Anyone who wishes me to include their comments please let me know and I will add them (unattributed) to this post.

  • Our ILS provider does very little with SIP compared to our previous provider. Obviously not a priority in the States so no development work carried out over here.
  • Not been able to fully implement self-service. have now decided to abandon this supplier.
  • We work on a partnership basis with (our supplier) – it is a positive relationship – and a longstanding one.
  • General communication is very poor.
  • Not good at keeping software at up to date versions and same versions across all kiosks and other software
  • Handheld scanner has never worked – given up trying to resolve this.
  • Moving our ILS into a hosted SaaS environment, establishing a more secure connection to the new server. Looking into SIP over https.
  • Quick enough to get a contract – not sure what we pay our service contract for as I seem to have to do most of the initial troubleshooting and issues are still problematic years after implementation.
  • Account management is non-existent. It seems the lack of competition in the marketplace allows them to simply not have to try, in any respect.
  • A lot of RFID suppliers, our current one in particular, are still selling overpriced equipment, with similarly overpriced support contracts, whilst offering a much lower level of support… They are still seeing local authorities as a cash cow. Considering the cost of the component parts have dropped by an enormous amount since our last implementation, the equipment from the majority of suppliers has not followed suit.  This is seriously bringing the viability of continued use of RFID for self-service and security in to question.


  • We got a book sorter in late 2011. It took over a year to get it working reliably.  However, it is now integral to the library workflow — it is a major problem if stops working.
  • The service we receive from the online helpdesk and remote first line support is laughable. The engineers who visit to fix things are generally very good. My complaints are less to do with the equipment which is fairly reliable, and more to do with the cutting corners approach adopted by our supplier which means that problems take far longer than they should to be resolved.
  • Suppliers should take on duty and cost to use ISO standard RFID tags (upgrade hardware and software)
  • One of our biggest challenges at present is remote support. Our supplier can’t diagnose issues remotely and wants access inside our corporate network but IT security policies block this. Sometimes our supplier then refuses to send someone out and we have to do triage to prove the issue is hardware.
  • Week commencing 24 October 2016 I enquired about having the customers lending history on the kiosk and was told it would not be available for at least 2 years.


The next question sought to determine whether Near Field Communication (NFC) was being used in library operations at all. NFC is the technology behind a number of smartphone apps – such as Apple Pay – and allows users to interact directly with library stock. Having seen examples of this capability in action I was eager to discover whether many UK libraries were yet using it.

The answer was yes – from 4 libraries. One was using it to enable library users to borrow their own items the other three were using stock as a discovery tool by reading the RFID tags. (An extension of the solution implemented by Oslo public library that first featured in one of my presentations four years ago). I have not produced a chart for such a low level of activity.

Similarly I asked if libraries were using their circulation self-service kiosks for library purposes other than circulation. 14 replies said ‘yes’ although some implied that they were in fact using separate kiosks rather than those used for circulation. The other uses were:

Booking other library assets                                                                      5

Catalogue enquiries                                                                                      3

Managing printing                                                                                         5

Tourist enquiries, Flickr,  Heritage (separate kiosks)                        1


The penultimate question asked whether self-service kiosks were being used to deliver non-library services – like paying council tax bills etc. No-one was.


Finally I asked for comments on any aspect of RFID/NFC use that respondents felt moved to make. Here is a selection of their replies. I’ve emphasised some of the points in bold. I’ll be returning to these in my analysis at the end of the week.


  • We have just changed LMS provider and are hoping to develop the use of NFC and RFID further in the coming year.
  • SIP2 constraints are proving a real headache and mean we’re providing a 2nd rate service to our RFID branch users.
  • In relation to NFC, we are aware that our users have access to apps on Android devices that would enable them to do things with RFID tags. However, there is no library app.
  • When we refreshed our RFID solution we asked (our supplier) to also have their tagging software installed. Thus allowing staff/volunteers to tag new stock or check the status of tags at the kiosks rather having to take the borrower to a staff PC to check this. This has saved us valuable time and helped us complete the customer journey at the kiosk instead of going from the kiosk to the staff PC and then back to the kiosk. We also wanted to launch chip and PIN payments on our kiosks but due to the high fees that the card payment provider was going to charge that (our supplier) put us contact with we were unable to offer this facility. Hopefully now that we are with (new supplier) we may be able to offer this service. We are also looking to offer self-service kiosk (desktop version) on our mobile library service too going forward.
  • The market in the UK has contracted significantly – this is a concern for the future.
  • Our RFID supplier has added all manner of bells and whistles to the kiosks’ capability but we aren’t interested in that. (In response to using kiosks for non-library service delivery)
  • Would like an RFID accessioning solution that integrates with Aleph
  • Looking to the future the developments around NFC are potentially exciting and we are keen to explore them; the idea of our Library users carrying out their own circulation transactions AND supplying the hardware is interesting! However, there is potentially risk around the use of NFC and I don’t feel that I’m particularly up to speed on that front. We are also keeping half an eye (thanks BIC for monitoring this on our behalf) on developments around potential EU requirements in respect of RFID privacy.
  • I felt that this year’s survey could have done with some questions about the longevity of the hardware in service. Although the cost of RFID self-service machines has come down quite a lot over the last 10 years, many users who run multi-site operations will have made a substantial investment in this kit. Many of those who’ve adopted solutions over the last few years won’t have run up against the problem of what to do about replacing it yet but some who’ve been using RFID for a while longer may have found themselves shopping for new kit after their existing hardware has, apparently, become obsolete overnight for no obvious technical reason. Many suppliers claim that they have a customer in a library somewhere in the depths of England who still has a kiosk that was implemented in Roman Times that is still going strong but it would be interesting to know how this experience tallies with the typical experience of customers. Having said this, perhaps the only thing that is sure if you buy an RFID system today is that it’s got an even chance of lasting as long as the supplier who sold you the kit. This is true irrespective of whether you buy it from: a bloke operating from the garden shed who could decide to retire to Bognor Regis as soon as your payment has gone through; a large multinational company with many fingers in many pies who could decide tomorrow on a whim that they’re a bit bored with RFID; or from an international specialist supplier that is backed by an investment capital company, which could turn around tomorrow and decide to cut its losses and sell the whole thing to an unsuspecting punter for £1.


2016 Library RFID Survey Results – Introduction

This year’s survey closed on 15th November and drew 356 responses – mainly from the UK, Australia and New Zealand – but with some contributions from North America and English speakers elsewhere.

There were 356 replies in total but after removing the mischievous, malicious and an unusually high number of duplicates entries only 207 ‘valid’ entries could be processed.Muntpunt checkout

Duplicates – by which I mean additional replies from the same organisation – are always a problem as there will always be members of staff with different views on issues like levels of service. Wherever possible I verified which respondent had responsibility for managing RFID systems and used their responses. Where this was not possible I selected the responses that had shown an understanding of RFID – knew which frequency was in use, knew the name of their ILS/LMS system for example – rather than the ones that only answered the questions on supplier performance (many of which were either entirely very positive or very negative).

There were several reasons for conducting the survey. I wanted to establish whether the obvious potential of RFID for library service development was showing any sign of being realised. With Near Field Communication (NFC) – a technology that enables smartphones to interact directly with library stock – now widely available I wanted to try and discover whether it had yet found its way out of the laboratory and into the commercial sector.

Another area of interest is the extent to which RFID devices designed for library use were being used to deliver other services. In 2013 Lambeth announced its intention to spend £373,420 of its library budget  on a product called ‘My Community’ – designed to deliver council services via self-service kiosks. I wanted to discover how successful that initiative had been.

Finally I wanted to try and ascertain how well suppliers were serving their clients. This was because of a growing number of emails received expressing concerns about deterioration of service. It’s a perennial complaint, I just wanted to try and gauge whether it was any worse than in previous years.

With the UK and ANZ accounting for most of the replies received I’ve decided to publish theirs separately this year, beginning with the UK. Both markets are dominated by a single supplier – Bibliotheca+3M in the UK and FE Technologies in ANZ – which tends to influence the ways in which their library RFID markets have developed and it seemed more helpful to analyse them individually.

Publication will start tomorrow with the UK results, followed rapidly by ANZ, North America and everywhere else. My analysis will follow on Friday. Between now and then I welcome – as always – your observations, comments and opinions.

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