The following was written with help from Mick Fortune, an expert in RFID technology.
What is RFID?
RFID (Radio-frequency identification) is a type of technology that is often used in self-service equipment to enable library users to borrow and return books themselves. Although RFID technology is used in self-service, not all self-service equipment uses RFID.
Sounds interesting. Are all RFID systems the same?
Most systems perform much the same tasks but each uses a different RFID “data model” That means that books from one library service cannot be easily be used by another and prevents libraries from using whatever equipment they want. A new UK standard to overcome this limitation was agreed in 2010, but so far no public library service is using it. Unlike barcodes which, despite using barcode schema can be read by almost any scanner, RFID “tags” contain different data stored it in different ways .
Are there advantages to using barcodes?
Barcodes are a much cheaper and widely recognised means of identifying individual items but have to be borrowed one at a time – with each book usually having to be opened to scan the barcode. Stocktaking also requires staff to remove items from the shelf and scan each barcode separately.
So how does this differ from RFID?
With RFID borrowers can place all of their books on a reading table and borrow them all simultaneously – as many as 15 in some systems. Stocktaking no longer requires items to be handled at all since the tags can be read at a distance and through the covers .
The problem with RFID is that, with there being no data standard different suppliers have chosen different ways to store data on their tags. Data like copy information, owning library, whether the item is part of a set, whether it can be borrowed by anyone or limited to certain age groups etc.
Suppliers dislike this lack of standards as they have to carry out a different process for every library and write different data in different places for each supplier’s hardware to be able to read it.
My authority is introducing self-service to save money. Will it?
It might. Savings will be made if the machines are used to replace staff (which is what is happening in many cases), but it is not cost effective on its own. RFID tags cost more than standard barcodes. (About 10 times as much). They also make the cost of supply higher for the reasons given above. Factor these two costs into the book purchasing for an entire authority (Kent, for example, added 230,000 items last year) and the costs increase considerably.
Why is the new standard an improvement?
Firstly, it makes it easier for suppliers to process book stock. Instead of the manpower and time lost through alternating between different types of RFID tag, book suppliers can just apply one type of tag, which would effectively drive down costs to library authorities.
Secondly, as well as driving costs down from the book suppliers end, it also drives down the cost of the tags. If all suppliers offer the same type of tag, it would drive down costs making the technology cheaper for library authorities
Another advantage is for the future of the library service. Everyone accepts that a desired outcome for the service is the ability for items to be moved around the country quickly and easily. By ensuring a standard is applied to tags it makes it much easier for library authorities across the UK (and not just in small consortiums) to share their book stock.
So is RFID a bad thing?
RFID is most certainly a good thing, but investment in an RFID system at the moment that does not use the new standard could be a costly mistake. The new standard will reduce costs, but much of the existing equipment will have to be updated to handle the new standard.
Many thanks to Mick for helping with these questions. My understanding of RFID is fairly limited so Mick’s input was very gratefully received.
What this means for Kent Libraries*
“Self issue technology will help us to deliver a more efficient and cost effective library service.
“Over the next 18 months we will cover the £1.5m cost of the project and from that point on save an additional £1m per year.
“As part of these savings will we be taking 83 full time equivalent posts out of our current structure.”
The problem is that the savings of £1 million appear to be as a result of staff cuts, not through supposed efficiencies of self-service. If KCC did not take 83 full time equivalents out of the structure (equivalent to approx. £1 million off the wage bill), there would be no saving from the introduction of RFID at all, on the contrary, the opposite would be true and it would cost substantially more (even if you took out the cost of the equipment). As was stated above in the Q&A, the savings councils often announce come from replacing staff, not from the introduction of the actual self-service units. So, to say that self-issue will be more “cost effective” is slightly misleading. The “cost-effectiveness” comes from the removal of staff from the structure, not from the equipment.
Effectively then, the self-service units are a convenient excuse to cut staffing. The sad thing is, if they waited a little longer before introducing the technology, they could have made savings without having to lose 83 full time members of staff. It seems like the council have made a hurried decision to make some headline savings rather than waiting for the improvements in RFID as outlined above. Shame is, if they had waited a little longer before introducing the technology, they would not have needed to remove quite so many posts from the existing structure in order to make the equivalent savings. Patience would have led to savings both in terms of money as well as jobs.
* This section was added after the original post was published.