Posted by Lori Ayre on January 31, 2008

Do you understand that you can incorporate automated check-in machines and sorters for your library without taking on the enormous costs associated with RFID tags? Self check out is old news. Everyone is doing it (or should be) and they are getting a very high rate of self checkout use (85% and higher) with and without RFID. If you are NOT getting 85% self check on your machines it properly has more to do with where the bar codes are located, whether everything in your library is indeed self check out-able. It could also be an problem related to where you've located your machines and how well you are driving your customers to those machines (instead of the old circulation desks). Anyway, if you aren't getting 85% self check on your self check machines, it isn't because you are using bar codes, I assure you.

In fact, you can do most automation stuff with RFID tags as well as bar codes and that includes self check out, self check in and sorting.

Here's where RFID really makes a difference: inventory and book drops. You may actually do inventory of your collections if they are RFID tagged because it is so much easier. And I'm convinced that more frequent inventories would be a good thing. Now that everyone is pulling so many holds/requests for customers, we're seeing how frequently things are not where they belong. Frustrating, isn't it? Well, guess what. That's been the customer experience all along. Customers and staff both benefit from a tighter correlation between what the catalog says and what the reality on the shelves is. RFID could help with that.

Book drops can be RFID-enabled too. To be clear, I'm not talking about automated check in machines that work almost as well with bar codes as with RFID tags. An RFID-enabled book drop is literally a book drop that just checks in the item. No sorting happens because it is just a book drop. The reader reads the tags as they are dropped into the book drop and they get checked in (later in batches or in real-time if you have a connection to the ILS).

Automated self check in machines can be RFID or bar code based. With bar codes, the customer has to feed in each item with the bar code oriented properly so it can be read (although you can have a top and a bottom reader so they don't have to be THAT fussy). Ideally, your automated check in machine is equipped with a sorter that AT LEAST separates Holds from Returns and maybe even puts Children's material, Adult Fiction, NonFiction, and A/V material all in their own special bins. So, whether its bar codes or RFID tags, you are getting the benefit of instant check in (for the customer) and sorting (for the staff). And remember, that if you are sorting (which totally rocks), the items have to be fed in one at a time anyway so its not like the customer can just shove in a pile of books either way.

From my point of view, the RFID-enabled book drop is handy for customers but not nearly has useful as the automated check in that feeds right into a sorter. And that automated check in with sorter works very well with either RFID tags or bar codes (assuming bar codes are on the outside of your material).

So, please. Don't collapse sorting and self service automation in with RFID. It just isn't necessary. You may choose to implement RFID at the same time but hopefully its because you really want that inventory feature, or you want to have the security and identification of items all in one unit (the RFID tag) rather than using security strips for security and bar codes for identification. (Caveat: there are still some issues with how well RFID tags do the security thing especially with A/V material)

Another reason you may choose RFID now is because you've got a library full of nasty 'ol bar codes stuck on the inside of your material instead of nice clean ones uniformly located on the outside of each item. If you'd need to rebarcode everything anyway, yes, then, you should definitely be considering RFID tags.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-RFID. I think libraries are going to end up with RFID tags eventually. But it would be nice to wait for the standards to be in place (ISO and NISO data model standards) so that they are interoperable and will only work with library readers (read about Application Family Identifiers in the latest NISO report).

In fact, RFID poses some very interesting new ideas but if we treat it like a glorfied bar code, we don't take advantage of some of the really innovative possibilities. The current generation of RFID tags are just that: glorified (and very expensive) bar codes.

Innovative possibilities? Consider the department store in Germany that is tagging their men's clothes and then reading the tags in the fitting room to customize suggestions that help shoppers find other things they might like or which might be a nice addition to the outfits they've selected. Here's the article from ZDNet.

Or what about the little device called the TellMate that helps visually challenged people identify objects that are difficult to identify by touch (e.g. credit cards and generic containers). Could blind customers someday have a device that reads titles out loud for them to help select DVDs perhaps?

These kinds of truly innovative applications get me to thinking about how we could might someday take advantage of RFID technology in libraries. But to do that, we have to agree on how to store data on the tags, how our customer's privacy will be protected, how to ensure they are interoperable across vendors, how we can use them throughout the lifecycle of the item including during ILL transactions and delivery. And all that requires standards. Oh, and why not have the book publishers install them instead of having library staff do it. Once we get all these things in place, our creative juices can flow. "Stand here to get recommendations of other items you might like (based on what you have in your book bag now." Okay, potentially creepy but also potentially cool.

In sum, choose RFID tags for the right reasons and those reasons are very limited right now. But stay tuned because there will someday be some very exciting reasons to choose RFID tags, just not yet. We've still got some work to do before everyone should be jumping on that bandwagon.