Friday, October 15, 2010

RFID transforms the library -- you can help!

A new project underway at the library is one of our biggest undertakings in years and has the potential to quietly change the way we do many things. Some of the changes will be invisible and some will be dramatic. It will make the library easier and faster to use, save money and improve service, but getting there will be a big job.

It's RFID: Radio Frequency Identification, increasingly used in many libraries for all the above reasons.

RFID will change all our inventory control processes, most visibly checkout and security gates, but also check-in, reshelving, and searching for items. To implement it, we'll need to place a radio-frequency tag in or on every item in the collection, then replace our self-checks, security gates and book-drops. We'll want to add additional self-checks, new bookdrops, and automated materials handling equipment for returned items. With almost 400,000 items in our collections, this is a huge undertaking, and it will be the better part of two years before it's done.

The reason for all the work and cost is to improve service and security while lowering costs. By automating processes, we can handle more business without more staff. We can shorten checkout lines as more people use self-checks. Some libraries get 90% of checkouts done at self-checks, and we're planning to get easy-to-use checkout stations that will unlock media cases and allow payment of fines. We'll still have staff to help with problems, but any routine checkout, picking up holds etc., should go much faster.

RFID will improve library use because we'll get things back on the shelves faster, and have better tools to find lost or misshelved items. It will speed the checkout process by using faster more reliable self-checks with more functions including unlocking media cases and accepting fine payments. RFID will help stop loss with security gates which can notify staff of specific items being taken away without being checked out.

There should be considerable cost saving over time. Not only should we lose fewer items, but checkout and return processes can be highly automated. New bookdrops will check items in as they are returned, and automated materials handling will use conveyor belts to sort returned items. As implementation of new equipment is phased in, we should be able to save staff through attrition, by not using people to do repetitive tasks, and by letting attrition in non-benefited staff reduce the workforce. Staff should be able to do more high-level tasks and help the public. If use increases substantially, we would not need to increase staff commensurately.

In the past, there have been some civil liberties concerns expressed about public library RFID. In the system we are putting in place, there should be no privacy issues or concerns for two reasons:
  1. the radio frequency tags in our materials are very short range -- about 18" -- and require a dedicated reader on the frequency of the tags
  2. the tags contain nothing more than the bar code just like is currently printed on the backs of our books. Without a link into our circulation database -- which has strict privacy safeguards, the RFID data is meaningless.
All of these advantages and improvements come at a cost. We need to tag our entire collection, and then we need to replace a lot of equipment. The investment will pay off for the taxpayers, but the project has to be capitalized up front -- and next year's completion of the project is pending a decision by our City Council. The Library Board has requested the dollars, and the Mayor has included their request in his executive budget proposal to Council.

We're keeping the cost much lower than it could have been by relying on volunteer labor to tag the materials. This will save many thousands of dollars over hiring temporary staff to do the project, or stringing it out for years to try to let current staff absorb the tagging duties. With volunteer help, we plan to be done tagging all the materials by next summer.

We need a lot of volunteers to help. Cheryl Kraft, the RFID Volunteer Coordinator, is recruiting and training volunteers to tag materials for RFID. She’s looking for volunteers who would be available for 1-2 hour blocks anytime during the library’s open hours to scan bar codes and tags and work with a lap top computer. The work is actually easy to learn and goes quickly. Anyone interested in learning more about this exciting new volunteer opportunity, contact Cheryl at for more information.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome project! Please keep us updated on the progress.