2014 Library RFID Usage Survey

After much lobbying the survey is back! Regular respondents will be pleased to know however that this year’s survey is much shorter than usual.

Like the very first survey – in 2009 – the intention is primarily to try and establish how many libraries are using the technology – and in what ways. Since that first survey many things have changed and RFID is now frequently used for stock control, resource discovery, smart shelving and acquisition as well as with smartphones and tablets offering a growing number of new applications.

I’m frequently asked for information about the scale of RFID use in libraries around the world. Not only librarians but suppliers, investors, library and cultural agencies and even governments want to know who’s using which applications and what trends are emerging – and it’s difficult to obtain accurate figures.

So even if you have completed one of these before please do complete this year’s survey. You won’t have more than 15 questions to answer and none of them should take very long.

Everyone is welcome to participate but you may need a little expert knowledge to answer ALL the questions so please pass this on to your local expert if you’re unsure of anything.

All data collected remains both anonymous and confidential.

If you have additional comments or information – not covered by the survey – please feel free to email me at mick@libraryrfid.co.uk.

The survey will close on May 25th.

Thank you!

Complete the survey here.

2013 Survey of Library Use of RFID

The fifth annual survey of RFID use in UK libraries (and now 2nd global) takes place in January. Originally begun as an attempt to take an audit of UK public library use of the technology for the late lamented MLA it has grown over the years both in terms of its geographical coverage and range of questions. In 2012 the survey went international for the first time – with over 600 replies from all over the world. » Read more

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.

First responses to this year’s survey

surveyThanks to everybody who has completed the survey so far – and especially those who took the time to offer suggestions for improving future surveys.

Somewhat to my surprise there still seems to be a lack of understanding of some aspects of RFID so I thought it might be useful to explain their significance here.

The frequency being used by the chosen supplier still puzzles many of my respondents. The majority report using HF 13.56MHz – the standard most frequently recommended in Europe, Australia and New Zealand and North America and the one that supports the data models in use in the UK, much of Europe and most of North America. A few report using UHF – generally more popular in Asia but quite a few have no idea which they are using.

Why does frequency matter? There are a number of operational reasons – many have been extensively discussed elsewhere on this blog so I won’t repeat them here – but probably the main thing to remember is that UHF tags cannot be read by HF equipment – or vice versa. So your future choice of supplier might be severely limited.

My reason for asking the question is to try and establish the extent to which UHF – gaining popularity in India, China and Japan (despite being the older of the two technologies) – is penetrating those markets currently dominated by HF solutions. Since UHF systems have only very recently become capable of supporting anything other than a single ID their use in conjunction with ILS/LMS/ILMS systems is very limited. Additionally, they cannot communicate with NFC devices – a technology I expect to become more widely used in conjunction with RFID over the coming years.

A respondent from North America expresses regret that they are still unable to use smartphones to issue stock – a possibility that has so far failed to excite the interest of supplier selling expensive self-service kiosks for some reason. The good news is that I know of at least two European universities that have developed this capability themselves and may well release products in the coming year.

Another, from closer to home in the UK, complains about the restrictions of SIP2, preventing them from developing more modern library services. This reply I found particularly heartening for two reasons. First, because it came from a public library – a cause dear to my heart and secondly because it suggests that the work I’ve been doing with RFID and LMS suppliers for the past four years to replace SIP2 with something more useful is worthwhile. The Library Communication Framework – which seeks both to extend interoperability and make the development of new services much easier – is also extensively discussed on this blog – search for LCF.

So far no-one has reported using their self-service devices for anything other than library work although one respondent (from a university) did acknowledge the possibility in their comment:

“Our RFID supplier has added all manner of bells and whistles to the kiosks’ capability but we aren’t interested in that.”

I’m looking forward to hearing from a library that is using kiosks for other purposes – Lambeth perhaps?

(The survey of RFID use in libraries runs until November 15th 2016. You can contribute here.)

Four things you might not know about Library RFID

Over the past two weeks I’ve been talking to quite a few UK librarians about RFID issues. A few had misconceptions about some aspects of the technology and suggested that it might be helpful if I posted about them here. So here goes…

  1. RFID self-service doesn’t use sensitisers.

Many libraries invested in Electromagnetic (EM) security systems long before RFID appeared. These usually relied on a thin strip of metal (often called “tattle tape”) hidden in the book’s spine.EM

When items were borrowed a “de-sensitiser” reversed the polarity of these strips allowing them to pass security gates – set to sound an alarm when they detect sensitised items. High voltages powered the de-sensitiser which transmitted electricity in much the same way as an electric toothbrush does.

When self-service units first appeared in libraries they included these same de-sensitisers together with barcode readers to allow readers to issue their own items.

RFID self-service looks almost exactly like its EM counterpart but works in a completely different way. Instead of changing polarity on a bit of metal RFID depends entirely on data.

Library RFID tags usually comprise an aerial and a tiny chip stuck to a label. The data resides on the chip, while the aerial transmits data values to and from other devices via a scanner/receiver. Security is managed by writing specific values to an area of memory on the chip.

No high voltages. No magnetism. No sensitising or de-sensitising.

Because data is used to carry out the security function it is important for libraries know what data is being written – and how.  This is one reason why data standards are so important in RFID installations. RFID scanners using the same frequency – in another library for example – constantly scan for tags, and since not everyone uses the same values to set or clear security data false alarms can and do occur.

  1. It’s not the RFID system that makes the decisions.

This is a perennial topic. Every year I run a survey of RFID use in libraries around the world and one of the most common complaints I receive is that suppliers of RFID systems are very poor at responding to development requests.

Whilst many of these complaints are fully justified a significant number are asking for changes that could only be made by the management system (aka ILS or ILS) supplier.

All RFID solutions in use in UK libraries depend on a connection to the LMS. It is the LMS that continues to hold all the information – loan policies, borrowing limits, locations etc. All the information required by the RFID system – for displaying items on loan, fines owed or even to determine whether an item may be borrowed – is carried between the LMS system and RFID device by a message of some sort. This may be a web service, an API or some other proprietary means but most often it will be 3M’s “SIP”.

The Standard Interchange Protocol has been developed over many years to allow communication between an LMS and self-service systems (some of them RFID). It was designed primarily to support circulation and has been in use for over almost 30 years.

So RFID suppliers seeking to extend functionality for their clients are often restricted by their dependence on this protocol. Many have sought to improve matters by forming partnerships with specific LMS companies but of course the solutions they develop in this way are by definition bilateral in nature (i.e. they only work for products developed by the two partners).

The UK industry is trying to improve matters by developing an alternative to SIP called the “Library Communication Framework” (LCF).

  1. Adopting standards doesn’t usually require re-tagging stock

I frequently see messages on the RFID lists (particularly in the USA) from librarians explaining why they have decided not to use standards. One of the reasons given for not doing so is the cost.

taggingThere are of course still some costs incurred in switching over to a data standard but one of those often suggested – the cost of tag replacement – is often unnecessary. As I mentioned before a tag comprises a chip, an aerial and a sticky label and it’s the chip that matters here. Most of them are manufactured by the same supplier – NXP – but even if yours aren’t there is every chance that they can be converted without having to replace them.

In the early days of library RFID suppliers used many different manufactures for their tags and some of these products were discontinued, leaving library clients with no alternative but to replace existing tags altogether. That all changed in 2011 and it’s a simple enough matter to ask your supplier whether it’s possible to make the switch. Anyone wanting to future-proof their implementation should seriously consider doing so.

Some companies already offer hardware that will automatically convert tags to the UK standard as they are borrowed and since all UK suppliers have undertaken to support both their own and the UK data standard there should be no need to swap tags.

  1. You don’t have to buy everything from the same supplier

Before RFID suppliers agreed to support the UK data standard they each decided what data to use and critically where and how to store it on the chip. This often varied from site to site as some librarians mandated data elements they wanted to store.

This state of affairs rapidly created an inflexible market in which libraries had no choice but to buy all their RFID supplies from the same company.

Framework agreements – very popular with the public sector – have tended to perpetuate this practice and most procurements are still based on buying from a single supplier.

Academic libraries have proved more adventurous than their public sector counterparts in asking suppliers to support existing systems – usually by writing bespoke software to read another supplier’s data model – but this has become unwieldy for suppliers and libraries alike so most new installations use the standard – making it easier to mix and match hardware from different suppliers as well as allowing librarians the freedom to buy any new products that support the data standard.

RFID usage in Dutch and Belgian Public Libraries

Day One – Amersfoort, Almere and Amstelveen

Following a most enjoyable visit to Lyon for the 80th World Library and Information Congress in August I accepted invitations from two companies operating in the RFID market to go and visit their installations in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Having previously worked in both countries (for three different companies!) it seemed too good an opportunity to see not only how RFID is being used but to renew my acquaintance with the two library communities. I was also eager to see how public libraries in particular were facing up to the challenges that seem at times to be overwhelming their UK counterparts.

My hosts for the first day were the recently renamed Nedap Library Solutions (@nedaplibrix). Having met with Sharon Beening and Ruud Owens in Lyon – and having had some contact with an earlier UK incarnation of Nedap’s library division I wanted to understand more about a company that works extensively with business partners in the UK and elsewhere but which does sell directly into the UK market.

Up until 2014 there had been few Nedap users in the annual survey – despite their obvious considerable presence in the Dutch library market – and I wanted to know more about the development of their product portfolio –especially since the Netherlands developed a national data standard for RFID some time before the UK. » Read more

Questions arising from the 2014 survey – 2. Which systems work together?

A perennial question is which library management systems have been successfully installed with which RFID solutions?

I’m never too eager to publish this information since I fear that some may simply look for their ILS/LMS and see which RFID suppliers they should consider. Why is that a bad idea? Well if you’re not buying a solution based on the data standards recommended by the various national bodies around the world (the vast majority of them based on ISO 28560) then I suppose it’s the only way you can be sure of buying something that might work. » Read more

Psst! Wanna buy an RFID solution?

Over the last few weeks I have been deeply immersed in the results of the 2012 RFID survey. The ‘high level’ results were published on my website earlier in the year but with three international conference presentations and two articles to write before September  all based on the findings – I’ve been drilling down into the replies from the confused and confusing world that is the global library RFID market.

With my first deadline approaching on Friday I had better not take too much time over this post but there is so much going on at the moment that I risk communication failure on a massive level if I don’t share some news – and some concerns – right away.

The first of these concerns the tender process.

In the last 72 hours I have had the opportunity to read through two current RFPs issued by libraries in Canada.

Up until relatively recently the Canadian library RFID market has been quiet. In conversations with Canadian librarians and consultants it seemed clear that since, like the UK, Canada had no advisory body available to give advice and consultation on such matters most librarians there had opted for caution.

Ottawa and Calgary I know did the research and opted to mandate adherence to ISO 28560-2 but it seems that now libraries simply want to buy whatever is on offer – as their UK counterparts did for many years.

This is of course an approach that operates very much to the advantage of some RFID suppliers. One recent tender (issued in the last week) simply has a shopping list of tags and hardware that will be required. No consideration appears to have been given to whether the solution they will eventually buy will interoperate with anything else.

So when smartphone applications built to work with ISO 28560-2 begin to appear that library will be left wondering why their users can’t use them. When some RFID suppliers release upgraded services that operate only with ISO 28560-2 tags (and they’re building them now) that library will presumably still be wondering – “what’s a data model?”

There were two reasons why we – suppliers and librarians – spent so much time working to create a national data standard. The first was to end the technology ‘lock-in’ that either prevented libraries from ever buying any other RFID system – or tacitly agreed to forever limit themselves to using such functionality as can be supported by a barcode.

The second reason was to create a more open market – and a more homogeneous platform – in and upon which suppliers could create new functionality for a global market – rather than for a single library. Better stock management, ILL, offline circulation and smartphone integration are just a few of the things we can now confidently expect to see appearing as a result.

Anyone still buying RFID ‘by the yard’ (from less scrupulous suppliers – as my headline suggests) may as well simply ask “how much can I get for £50,000?” You have thrown away your options before you begin. Buying a system that doesn’t support a data standard was perhaps forgivable when there was no other choice. To do so now borders on the irresponsible.

Before too many UK librarians begin to feel smug about having ticked boxes their Canadian colleagues appear to have ignored they should perhaps consider whether they have done very much better.

It’s not just a matter of including “28560” in your RFP. Many UK libraries appear to believe it is. The survey showed clearly that most UK librarians still have no idea that there is a national data model or that there are different versions of 28560. For that matter, most have no idea that there are different – mutually exclusive – ways to implement it. One even insisted that they had implemented a version that their supplier does not support.

That’s without even starting to think about HF and UHF frequencies, the new EU privacy regulations, the BSI’s current efforts to issue a privacy standard for the UK or the vexed question of how best to integrate all this with existing investments – like the LMS for example. (SIP 3.0, BLCF, web services?)

The NAG/BIC guidelines on RFID procurement – or “How to write and Invitation to tender that will secure your library’s future” as I prefer to call it – has, I’m told by suppliers, been used by at least four authorities since it was published last year. Only one of them actually used it as the basis for developing a requirement for their library. The remainder simply attached it to an email or notice despite the fact that it contains multiple, mutually exclusive options.

NAG are running a seminar in Manchester on the 19th June to help those trying to do the best for their libraries get to grips with specifying their RFID requirements. There will be discussion, worked examples, guidance for scoring and evaluating bids and an update on the (fairly dramatic) changes taking place in the industry.

I’ll be there – will you?

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