RFID in the Library – Who’s in control?

Good post on the UK RFID list from Steve Heywood last night. Can’t help but agree with his views about concentrating on solutions rather than the technology but I can see little evidence of this happening at the moment. I recently saw a presentation that indicated that a major investment in RFID would be made in 2010 to deliver the same benefits here as a Danish library the presenter had recently visited were enjoying. This kind of reinforces the “magic bullet” or “fairy dust” view that many libraries seem to have of RFID in the UK.  

Danish libraries have succeeded in getting so much from RFID because they all implemented it in the same way – and the key to that was the Danish Data Model. You only need the barcode to make a system work and in Denmark that’s exactly what they did. Not only do they have systems that use just the barcode data, but they all (well almost all) put that information in the same place on the tag – so anyone can use it.

So it works REALLY well.

 In the UK (and in the US and Australia) they didn’t do that. For reasons (that allegedly might not be entirely unconnected with gaining commercial advantage) every supplier was free to choose for themselves how they wanted to implement RFID solutions. So they did. In the UK some (two in fact) saw the advantages of using the Danish model  – but most didn’t. Some of them even went so far as to encrypt their data either to a) prevent anyone tampering with the data or b) protect their own interests – you decide.

These days, data – and not just the barcode number – is used in all kinds of ways. None of this is evident to users of self-service because self-service does only uses the barcode number – so where the data is, how it is written to the tag or whether there is any other data present –  makes zero difference to its successful operation.

The consequences for libraries of continuing this state of affairs will depend on how they plan to develop their service. It may make no difference whatsoever, or it could be catastrophic – or anywhere in between – it depends on a host of issues.  RFID companies can help you solve each of these problems with software, but for markets where no data standards have been used a better way might be to switch to a single standard, as the Danes, and many of their neighbours have done already.

And yet libraries are still ignoring the issue. Perhaps more disappointingly many RFID companies – despite signing up to support it (in the UK at least) – are too.

But let’s assume that things will change. Where do we focus our attention in order to gain best value from RFID? Is it a “nag list” for the LMS/ILS suppliers as Steve suggests?

Well a good nag never hurts but I need to clarify something I said on the UK RFID list. The choice to which I referred there is not exclusive. We can still choose to use RFID as a smart label and only use the barcode number (or something else) as an identifier. We don’t have to use all the fields the standard offers (or any of the optional ones) – indeed that is the UK recommendation from BIC. The key point is that, whatever we choose, we will all be using the same fields in the same way. If your LMS/ILS doesn’t “have an app for that” then you won’t get the extra features, that’s all.

So the challenge is, I think, twofold. Will suppliers see the potential to gain competitive advantage by using RFID more creatively (and consistently) and will libraries help them understand how they can do that?

Are your RFID tags encrypted?

Recently one of the UK’s early RFID adopters asked me a question that rang alarm bells about the attitude of one UK supplier to the standards issue.

It was a simple scenario. The library had installed an RFID self-service issue and security solution from one supplier and was now interested in installing an automated returns sorter from another. They were aware that there might be some programming work required since, as readers of this blog are fed up with hearing, all UK suppliers use different data models.

Their reasonable expectation was that, with programming, the new sorter could be enabled to read their existing tags. At least one other university has done this successfully, so it seemed reasonable to assume that the same course of action could be followed here.

But sadly this was not so. The university has been advised that permission to read the tags has been denied by the incumbent supplier.

They were curious to know if anyone else had encountered a similar problem. So I asked the list. So far no-one has felt moved to respond – on or off list – although an email from a public library colleague revealed that their most recent project was being delayed by the absence of permission from the same company.

And yesterday came the suggestion in another email that this isn’t simply a case of permission. The data being written to the tags may in fact be encrypted.

What does that mean? Put simply it means that no other supplier can read the data without access to the encyption key. I recall suggesting that this could happen about a year ago at a presentation I gave in Glasgow but was very firmly told I was being alarmist (by the same supplier!) Maybe I inadvertently gave them the idea?

I have not yet been able to establish the accuracy of this latest assertion but its source has always been entirely reliable. So I suggest that if you have already have RFID installed in your library you ask if your data is being encrypted because, if it is, future development might be more difficult than it need be.

“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…

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