Posted by Lori Ayre on June 4, 2013

Once your library decides to transition to RFID, one of the first things you have to consider if integration with library management system (LMS aka ILS) and your RFID system. Basic check-out on your self-check machines will probably work just dandy regardless of your RFID/LMS vendors because these communications are usually based on SIP2. But as soon as you get into any advanced functionality (e.g. fee payment, account management) on the self-checks and especially when you get into the functionality of the staff client, it all goes to hell.

The simple reason for this is that none of the LMS/ILS vendors sell an RFID-enabled staff client.  Instead they sell their standard, barcode-based system, and then leave the integration problems to the RFID vendor. So, how your new RFID system works for your library staff is going to depend on your particular combination of ILS and RFID vendor.  And how much it is going to cost you to convert to RFID is also going to be a function of your LMS/ILS.

Let's focus on the staff client interface - this is the software your library staff use to check-in and check-out material as well as perform all those other account management functions for patrons.  When you select an LMS/ILS, chances you the staff interface was a pretty important.  And since you went to all that trouble to pick an ILS/LMS with a staff interface that you like, you probably don't want to switch to a whole new interface just because you are moving from a barcode based system to an RFID system (TechLogic tried providing a new staff client for their RFID system but they were thumped on the head for attempting to replace the ILS/LMS provided staff client).  So, the RFID vendors have had to resort to some truly idiotic solutions that hobble the technology.  And to make matters worse, the ILS/LMS vendor may even charge you ridiculous sums of money for the privilege of stinking up a perfectly good RFID system.

Some of the RFID vendors have established relationships with ILS/LMS vendors and come up with more elegant - but proprietary - solutions.  For example the 3M Enhanced Staff Workstation is a proprietary solution based on 3M's API For circulation client integraion. Over 20 ILS/LMS vendors have integrated their product with this proprietary solution.  Your ILS/LMS vendor may charge you extra for supporting the 3M API, and of course 3M charges more for their 3M Enhanced Staff Workstation than for their standard staff workstation.  So, the library gets dinged twice for this solution (potentially) but at least it works well.

Bibliotheca recently announced that they were entering into a strategic partnership with SirsiDynix and would be developing an enhanced interface between their RFID systems and the SirsiDynix product(s).  And, more importantly, they would be doing so based on LCF (Library Communication Framework).  So, rather than developing a proprietary interface like 3M has done, they will be developing a framework that could theoretically be replicated by other LMS/ILS and RFID vendors.  We'll see how that pans fingers are crossed.

And for the rest of you, you are probably stuck with an RFID system that communicates to your ILS with a keyboard wedge or via screen-scraping.  This totally sucks. A keyboard wedge is basically a way to undo one of the reasons you went to RFID in the first place.  The RFID pad at your staff station reads all the tag data on multiple tags at a time and the keyboard wedge (which is software) dumbs it all down and feeds it slowly to your ILS/LMS as if your RFID reader were a barcode scanner. One of the biggest problems with this approach is that barcode scanners just read barcodes. If there's other info on the tag, the ILS doesn't want to hear about it.  And, these wedgy systems can't turn security off and on. The library staff person may have to hit a special function key to turn security on or off security depending on whether they are checking in or checking out material.  In other words, its an extra step for staff - rendering one of the advantages of moving to RFID lost.  

Screen-scraping is another way RFID "integration" is done. You see screen-scraping solutions a lot in resource-sharing (ILL) products and also in RFID products. If you are on an Innovative product, you can bet your screens are being scraped like crazy.  That's the only way to get useful information out of the system.  In the case of RFID, the RFID vendor software literally reads what is on the screen and extract useful data from it based on its position on the screen.  The work for the RFID vendor to provide a screen-scrape solution is immense. And if the ILS/LMS vendor updates their screens, then the RFID (or resource-sharing) vendor has to modify their integration with that product to accommodate the screen changes. The same issue with security can occur here although some RFID vendors have gotten clever enough with their screen-scraping that they can tell what screen the staff person has opened and, based on that, security will be turned off or turned on.  But all this screen-scraping rigamarole takes much more time than it should.

What SHOULD be happening instead of all of the above is that ILS/LMS vendors should be providing an RFID-enabled staff client. That way, they could deliver to their customers the rich functionality you've come to love in your staff client AND it would work efficiently with RFID technology.   

Now that we have adopted RFID standards, there's absolutely no excuse for the lack of an RFID-enabled staff interface. If I were an ILS/LMS vendor, I'd be working to deliver an elegant solution for my RFID libraries that presumes the library is following the ISO 28560-2 standard that the US, UK, and Australia have adopted.  My staff client would be able to read all of the available data on the tag and turn security on and off as appropriate.  It wouldn't require some remedial piece of software that dumbs down the RFID system.  It would be able to grab any or all of the data from that tag and start using it do new and interesting things.  Libraries could at least to do the same old things lots better and faster and more efficiently.  RFID technology isn't cutting edge anymore. When with the ILS/LMS vendors figure that out?