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!

CILIP Conference site up and running!

CILIP’s website and blog promoting this year’s RFID conference are now up and running! After meeting with John and Joan we are now very close to finalising this year’s agenda which will, I hope, have something to offer both for those unfamiliar with the technology and existing users looking for new ideas. It will, as ever, be the main event for everyone involved in this exciting technology in what looks to be a milestone year.

JISC List Policy and LIB-RFID

Some diverse opinions on using lists for advertising expressed on the list yesterday and today. A recent trickle of “advertorials” and unsolicited testimonies annoyed at least one of the contributors  sufficient to voice a protest that the list is being exploited for advertising purposes.

This has in turn has prompted Nick Lewis – the list founder and owner – to remind us all that JISC lists are not meant for product placement, a view I instinctively support, but which places me in a difficult position.

As I make my living from advising libraries on all matters RFID I am, in effect, promoting my services every time I post to the list. I cannot help but feel that many of the assignments that have come my way have done so as a result of my involvement with it.

New products, and new claims, are being made all the time and I believe that there is a need to debate the efficacy and relevance of both. My concern was that if such announcements are made on a different JISC list the debate is likely to take place there rather than on LIB-RFID. In a world currently obsessed with so many means of communication (lists, blogs, twitter, second life etc.) the fragmentation of the RFID debate seems in nobody’s best interests.

Rather than debate this issue on the list – which might be construed as advertising – it seems advisable for me to focus more on my own web presence in the future.  This blog will continue to serve as a place to critically examine the RFID market and the claims made for new products – by anyone. I think that should clearly be one of  its main purposes.

I will continue to post to the list but, in deference to Nick, will try to be rather more circumspect in the future.

“On the fly” conversion from Bibliotheca

New alert on Twitter this morning linking to a new story on the Library Technology Guides website:

Bibliotheca announced non-proprietary “on-the-fly” RFID conversion software that allows libraries equipped with barcodes the flexibility to convert to RFID at the self-check station or book return as patrons complete routine check-out/check-in of library materials. The RFID conversion software helps unburden libraries from the amount of time, labor and cost needed to convert entire collections from barcodes to RFID. Bibliotheca’s flexible, patent-pending BiblioChip conversion software will work with Bibliotheca’s line of self-check stations and book returns, as well as products from other vendors.

A quick scan of Bibliotheca’s website fails to reveal the original story but hopefully it’s me, not the website that’s up too early in the day.

The solution on offer offers:

  • Smooth implementation of new data formats as they evolve
  • Simultaneous reading of multiple formats
  • Reading/writing of different vendor formats
  • Reading/writing of older, non-standard chips

There would seem to be little that has been overlooked in the wish list of most librarians struggling to make sense of emerging standards, competing frequencies, data models and data content and hybrid solutions.

The focus for this operation is self-service. Items are read, re-programmed and processed in one smooth operation at the point of issue or return. A “hybrid” self-service variant will even manage electromagnetic security at the same time. However no mention is made of how other library operattions will interoperate with blank tags for example.

There are a few questions that spring to mind to which the article, and the Bibliotheca website, offer no answers at the moment. Off the top of my head at 7am these include:

  • What is the impact on processing time of simultaneously reading and writing multiple formats at the pointm of issue?
  • How does the system identify which EM tagged items in a stack it should activate/deactivate?
  • How do borrowers know which items have been RFID processed already? (Or do they continue to read barcodes, one at a time forever? In which case what’s the point of RFID?)
  • How do shelf reading operations cope with multiple formats – or items that haven’t been borrowed yet?
  • How do consortia circulate stock if they’re not using Bibliotheca hardware?

I confess to being a little diappointed that one of the major RFID suppliers has developed a solution that seeks to circumvent a common standard rather than endorse it, particularly as the rest of the UK market is so close to agreement on a national standard. Perhaps the absence of Bibliotheca’s UK representatives (D Tech)  from the January 19th meeting was more significant than I realised at the time?

Whilst appreciating the sales appeal of a “one size fits all” solution, I’m not sure if this solution delivers on that promise. Perhaps things will become clearer soon…

Bridgeall announces improved RFID links to smartsm

A press release received this evening announces that “smartsm now enables users to run all of its stock Action Plans and save them straight onto their handheld stock management devices from 4 of the UK’s leading suppliers – 2CQR,
3M, D-Tech and Intellident”.

Good to see another step toward tighter integration at the LMS/RFID interface! Up to now libraries that were not lucky enough to have software supplied by their RFID supplier to do the work, had to create and run their own scripts to convert file formats from LMS to RFID format and vice versa.

This is clearly a much needed and overdue step in the right direction but still raises many unanswered questions. It’s not clear from the press release exactly what data is being transferred from the LMS for example. Will invite Ian to comment further on the blog I think.

Picking up the pace?

A very useful trip to meet with Mark and Paul at the University of Swansea today. Agreed to use Google groups to build an RFID community of users to create both a knowledge base and recommended specification for future library use of the technology.

ISO 28560-2 developments will feed into this process as the library stakeholder dialogue, begun on January 19th, continues.

The growing interest in where the technology might be taking us, is being reflected in the now almost daily demands for articles and presentations.

BIC management meeting tomorrow to follow up on January 19th actions.

Next issue of the CILIP Gazette will carry article by Mark and I on the need for libraries to work with other stakeholders to develop best practice guidelines and a standard specification for the development of RFID-based services.

Library Stakeholders Meeting

Almost a full house for the meeting at CILIP HQ on Monday. Only D Tech had a more pressing engagement at the last minute and a packed meeting managed to fill 2 hours with some very useful discussion!

It became clear, quite early on, that there was widespread support in the room for a common data standard. Book suppliers being especially eager to find a solution to the problem of having a different set-up for every customer. None of the RFID companies present saw any advantage in maintaining the status quo and the group decided quite rapidly to agree to the adoption of ISO 28560-1.

After that, and some helpful guidance from Paul Chartier, it was a relatively simple task to further agree that 28560-2 offered us the greatest flexibility. The meeting duly decided to support the adoption of 28560-2 as the preferred model for the UK model once it is published later this year.

From a purely personal viewpoint I was delighted both with the attendance (this was the first time almost all the UK’s leading RFID and LMS companies had sat down together) and the outcomes. It would be easy to believe – as many libraries apparently already do – that there are no obstacles to the widespread deployment of what is undoubtedly an exciting technology, but we still have some way to go before we reach Nirvana. Further meetings and consultations will now  establish the best way for the technology to serve the interests of its investors.

At present we live in an almost entirely proprietary world.

  • Each RFID supplier uses their own tag data model in combination with their own unique hardware solutions – making it very difficult to use systems from any other company.
  • Libraries continue to find unique solutions to their problems. At this meeting representatives from Norfolk libraries explained how they added data to their tags to prevent unauthorised borrowing during LMS downtime – by creating tag data that cannot be read by anyone else. Currently they have no other choice.
  • LMS providers strive to offer enhanced functionality through innovative use of tag memory – creating solutions that cannot be migrated to any other LMS/RFID pairing.

What we have to do is enable choice without destroying creativity. To do that we have to agree on a number of issues among which are:

  • Which of the 25 available fields should we use?
  • How should the data in those fields be stored?
  • What is the recommended minimum data requirement?
  • By what means is the data transferred from LMS to RFID system – SIP, web services, something else?
  • Which new functions can/should we create?

The meeting decided unanimously that we should begin this process as soon as possible. BIC were charged with making recommendations for future meetings and for deciding how best to make the market aware of the impact these changes will have.

This blog will, over the coming weeks, seek to examine the issues outlined above in more depth.

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