Libraries opting for RFID over barcode tags

By Karen Berman on
3M SelfCheck QuickConnect Home Screen

The 3M SelfCheck QuickConnect Home Screen for self-checkout at the library from 3M’s Library RFID Solutions series. From 3M.

Library patrons in Wallingford, Connecticut, now have the same checkout options that they do in the supermarket— person-to-person or automated self-checkout. Since the system’s inauguration at the beginning of the year, quite a few patrons are choosing  RFID-powered self-checkout.

In that respect, they are like library patrons across the country. RFID — Radio-Frequency Identification — has been making inroads in numerous libraries in recent years, enabling them to implement not only self-checkout technology, but automated check-in and sorting of books. The technology also allows libraries to take advantage of RF-powered location of mis-shelved items and acts as a deterrent to theft. These big steps forward in efficiency are all delivered by the small RF tags affixed to the books, CDs, DVDs and other items in a library’s inventory. The tags contain chips that are encoded with identifying information that is transmitted via RF signals to the library’s computers.

With all this functionality, RFID presents an attractive dilemma for libraries, because of the  relatively high cost of entry and the labor-intensive conversion process. At the Wallingford Public Library, grants paid for about half of the $300,000 cost of the system and library staff and volunteers spent months affixing tags to the library’s more than 250,000-item collection.

Like many libraries in the U.S., the Wallingford library opted for a system from 3M’s Library RFID Solutions. (3M assisted the Wallingford library in obtaining its funding.) 3M offers a broad menu of products ranging from RFID tags to self-checkout systems, from automated conversion tools to check-in and sorting systems.

The latter is one of the most attractive options to librarians, although it is seldom observed by the public. Patrons place their returned books or other items into a designated slot in a return station that is similar to an ATM. Once on the other side, the item lands on a conveyor belt equipped with RFID readers. The system reads the item’s RFID signals, determines which department or category it belongs in, and deposits the item from the conveyor belt into the corresponding bin. The bins are then returned to their respective departments for re-shelving. At the same time, the item’s RF tag signals to the library’s computer system that it has been returned. The conveyor systems also have optional bar code scanners.

But it’s RFID that really speeds up library operations, enabling individual tagged items to communicate with the circulation department’s computer systems without a librarian’s hands ever touching them. This, says a 3M white paper from 2011, means shorter lines at checkout, faster and more accurate return of books to shelves, more staff time devoted to interacting with patrons, and consequently greater staff productivity and customer satisfaction.

The white paper, titled, “RFID 101: Four Reasons for a Library to Invest in RFID Technology… and Three Reasons to Wait” acknowledges that some libraries are deliberately not embracing RFID technology due to concerns that it could enable tracking of library materials by a government or hacker.  The white paper refutes these concerns by citing the limits of the technology, stating that, “We agree that privacy is very important and we do not claim to know the intentions of the government or your neighbor. …we believe these limits should alleviate much of the concern over what can and cannot be known using this technology. The high-frequency tags used in library items cannot normally be read at a distance of more than 36 inches from a reader antenna. In rare instances, they might be picked up at four feet. To get to five or six feet, you would need a reader the size of a garden shed, which is highly impractical for covert surveillance. Beyond six feet, the physics of RFID make it virtually impossible to find out what’s in your briefcase or backpack.” 

In Wallingford, staff and patrons report they are pleased with the new system. In addition to the self-checkout and automated return systems, the library has installed RF-powered security gates to deter theft; unauthorized removal of tagged library inventory triggers alarms. They even have a kid-friendly self-checkout station in the children’s department.

But if patrons want their books checked out by a real live librarian, they can do that as well.

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