The title comes from a question I was asked at the recent Library RFID conference in London. It’s a REALLY good question because it’s extraordinarily difficult to answer. I was also challenged to rewrite a simple guide to RFID in the light of the changes taking place and while both of these projects are dear to my heart they will take a little time to complete.
In the meantime, judging by the number of emails and phone calls I’ve had since last Tuesday a lot of libraries are in a hurry to buy the technology and want some quick answers to key questions.
The Standard – for the non-technical
Rejoicing in the snappy title of ISO 28560-2, the UK data model has now been adopted by all the UK’s major RFID suppliers. That means that from January any library wishing to deploy RFID will, for the first time, be able to do so confident in the knowledge that their solution will REALLY be compatible with any other on the market.
Many libraries believe they are already in this happy position – and then there are the unhappy few who know otherwise. But since the RFID Alliance has undertaken to migrate all existing users to the new standard should they choose to do so, everyone can join the party if they wish.
The full standard allows for 25 data elements with multiple values available for each element but that’s only because the far-sighted people who designed it are thinking ahead to a future where even Library Management Systems as we know and love them today may no longer exist, and we may be interacting with objects in an entirely different way in an “Internet of Things”.
But for now only a handful of elements will be used and since these are pretty much those already present on existing tags in some form or other, migration should not be a major undertaking. And only three elements are compulsory.
So what was all the fuss about?
The “fuss” dear reader was mostly wind and fury – signifying nothing. RFID companies now have to give up their mini-monopolies so some of them have had a bit of a vested interest in trying to make me look like I’m being negative about the whole technology, rather than trying to stop them protecting their markets. But that all ended when the RFID Alliance announced that creating the standard was their idea all along…
I am on the record as saying that we needed a standard, ANY standard. We (the suppliers and the users) chose this one “because it was there” and because it offers much greater scope for future development. Whether we will ever that potential is for the market to decide.
So what changes?
One thing that might change right away is the way you buy RFID. Up to now you had to buy all your RFID toys from the same toyshop. (Did no-one ever wonder why?) A few have successfully bucked this trend by finding ways around the problem of different data models but that usually by getting one supplier to change their software to read another’s tags – or changing all the tags. Not what an IT person would call “interoperability”. Now we can do as the Danes, Dutch, French, Swedes, Finns… have been doing for years and choose where we buy our gates, our kiosks, our sorters and yes, even the wands that seem to sit under so many desks around the nation.
That means we may have to rethink our purchasing strategy as well. Framework agreements like Catalist and ESPO are predicated on a different model and will have to change – unless consumers choose to be locked into the past. Likewise a “pay as you go” approach to acquistion might make less impact on capital budgets and make it easier to fund transformation programmes. RFPs might need some reworking too…
For public libraries there is another major benefit in the potential to create a national ILL service in which at least the items circulated can be readily identified. One of the compulsory fields is the ISIL unique identifier for the owning library and Danish libraries already use this to manage a nationwide circulation system. – Now that will really help the SCL’s inititaive.
So What Should I do?
Insist on the UK Data Model. Your stock has to be tagged according to some kind of data model so why wouldn’t you choose the UK standard?
Ask for guarantees. Until some way is found of “certifying” the compliance of tags the only way you can be sure that your supplier meets the standard will be by testing it yourself – or paying someone else to. If a supplier tells you that their tags can be read by anybody else ask them to prove it.
Consider consortia deals. If all tags can be read by anyone there’s no longer a requirement to buy your tags from your RFID supplier – or even just for your library. I know that some libraries in the south east are already doing this where they share a common supplier but now anyone can join together. I may even start up my own co-operative… 🙂
Those are a few thoughts to begin with. I welcome corrections and opinions from anybody so please jump in!