RFID self-service – is now the right time?

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*

Mike Hill, councillor responsible for libraries recently stated the following:

“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.


12 thoughts on “RFID self-service – is now the right time?

  1. I’m no RFID expert, but we’ve been live here for about a year, we closed our lending desk and instead have a ‘Hub’ which is mainly for enquiries but can help issue books for those who don’t like using the machines.

    It’s allowed us to allocate more staff time to shelving and other activities (such as roving), so it’s more about improve user experience than cutting costs.

    While no cost or price increase is to be taken lightly, the costs of barcodes was tiny (barcode printer + labels) and RFID tags are ( I think) measured in pence, they cost more but still a small cost per book when all is considered.

    In terms of data and data standards. I really should learn more in this area. In terms of *what* you store on a tag, I’m sceptical about holding much more than an item number. As soon as you add more you have to consider (for some types of metadata) keeping it up to date, and privacy issues (rfid readers are cheap, I don’t want someone using one near my man bag in starbucks and seeing what I’m reading thank you). But I’m sure there are ways around this, I haven’t really looked in to it. My point though, each time someone gives me an example of what you could do with data on a RFID chip, it often seems no better then storing the data in the Library Management System. I’m happy to learn more though.

    For me, the ease of self-issue (our self-issue machines are 100 times easier to use than the old barcode based ones), and the potential for collection management are the killers.

    • I’m definitely not in favour of adding data for its own sake but sadly that’s exactly what many libraries have been doing for some time now.

      There are however only three mandatory elements in the UK data model – the ID (barcode number usually), the library ISIL code and an index field that indicates whether any other elements have been used.

      Some of the extra fields may be useful in delivering functionality when the LMS/RFID breaks down – all RFID systems operate effectively as “front-ends” to the LMS so if the link is lost the RFID systems can potentially allow anyone to borrow anything.

      In my opinion there are probably far too many fields in the new standard but in a way it doesn’t matter so long as the tags are “formatted” the same way as everybody else’s.

      No personal data should be stored on borrower or item tags so the privacy issue shouldn’t be a concern but so long as suppliers are making all the decisions there are no guarantees about tag content. Another reason for using a standard approach.

      As a former systems librarian and LMS supplier for 25 years I identify strongly with your statement about there being no reason to put much of this data on tags – the problem Chris is that it is, and we have to deal with the consequences and try to stop things getting any worse.

      Why does this happen? I think it’s mainly because the RFID and LMS companies don’t really understand what each other do – and public libraries in particular have lost most of the staff that might have had a chance of refereeing the situation.

      That’s probably why almost no-one makes a distinction between RFID and self-service. Which is really missing both the point and the opportunity.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention RFID self-service – is now the right time? | thoughts of a [wannabe] librarian… -- Topsy.com

  3. From a human angle in public libraries I recently made a comment on the following blog post:


    The Tim Coates tweet referred to on that page was:

    “Tim Coates: Self-service machines are an expensive capital cost with high maintenance & should not be used as a replacement for staff. #fb”

    ILLs are in a bit of a mess unless libs use standardized labels. At the moment the situation is a mess I think, RFID installed, running alongside barcodes, in the same library system – twice the cost!? It does though free staff, and assuming that those staff are going to move over to working on new technologies in the context of the libraries, ‘roving’ etc., are there any net saving? Will RFID just cost more with its higher operating costs? They would have to lose staff for it to be more cost efficient. Which most authorities do not want to admit is the reason behind installing the machines (certainly not in Liverpool 😉

    RFID makes for a more efficient library service, but it has higher operating costs. Is this a significant increase? If so where is the extra money going to materialize from (in addition to the initial capital outlay)?

  4. If the RFID operating costs are only small, and the (soft) benefits from the staff moving over projects working on bringing new technologies into the libraries etc. can be enumerated, those benefits I’m sure could be proven to be high (maybe Phil Bradley would have some analysis here), whilst at only a capital outlay and small ongoing cost – i.e., they are paying a small amount for a lot of benefit.

    The problem is when RFID is installed, library authorities do not list the projects that staff are going to move over to, and hence the benefits that they are expecting to see (this is in part because much new technology is still at an R&D stage in libraries – technology being where progress is to be found). As a result the strategic high ground here will probably be flitted away as the staff who are freed are used for routine shelf work etc. with extra staff usually brought in for sickness/ hols/ training etc. cover now not bothered with etc.

  5. The libraries where I work have installed RFID with the intent of freeing up staff. Unfortunately it has not been welcomed by at least half of our customers who still use our main desk to borrow and return. This requires staff to take customers to the RFID units and show them how to use them 2 years after they were introduced. Our RFID machines are also limited in their functions. They cannot renew overdue books, they do not take notes for payment or give change, they cannot scan library cards which require updating, they cannot scan out books which have been requested but not yet trapped. Many transactions do not run smoothly and have to be completed at the desk for both borrowing and returning, due to the above reasons as well as the RFID systems and our catalogue software not coordinating at times. This seems to have doubled the workload of staff and increased waiting times for our borrowers. If any other council is considering them, think very carefully how they are set up. As a library assistant, I would not recommend them as a time saving improvement.

  6. I have noticed two or three authorities in the press say that they were introducing RFID while reducing staff levels to pay for it while saving money in the longer term (I could probably dig out an article or two). I think RFID can be used to do this – work for staff is reduced by RFID in my experience, at least in the larger libraries, even if there are a lot of issues (ref. Alison), it generally gets used enough to free staff time to some extent.

    But you need though at least one member of staff behind a service point to answer queries – roving staff are never around when you need them (so you might as well have a dual system for checking out books – RFID and counter).

    The issue though is of the freed staff. This is a planning issue, and planning can also be a political issue (peoples’ values and the mission/ purpose of the organisation).

    I’ve read about one self-service library that had nowt but a security guard in it. Often (very often!) though people just need a book (and often not a specific book – a book on a subject, or that contains specific info. etc.) and want a library assistant to get it for them, it’s the quickest and most efficient way, a lot of queries the public would give up on very quickly if they had to find the book themselves. Often the library assistant needs to be able to look through the shelf/ books to be able to answer the query as well (e.g., “I have a presentation to give tomorrow and am looking for a particular poem…”). A library assistant can use a query as a ‘learning moment’ as well, to develop the library research skills of the person making the query.

    A footnote, stalking and harassment (including mobbing and gang stalking) is endemic in our society, and crime successfully keeps this below the surface of our society as well, I think everyone though in the end figures out it is there. At least one person in every large’ish team is covertly operating in some sort of criminal capacity in my own experience – so you can’t get away from it. Crime gravitates towards money and power (the latter usually towards the ends of wealth and the former) as well, which makes things doubly difficult for people (this is the subject of criminality amongst those with authority and wealth – and don’t forget most crime falls into this ‘unreported and unrecorded’ statistic that we have). I’ve actually many years ago been wondering if library staff at my local library weren’t engaging in the practise of putting secret marks on people’s Talis records to indicate they were blacklisted (singled out for harassment, etc.). There was a caller on the You & Yours program recently aired on the subject of library closures who said that on being made unemployed she thought OK I’ll go and use the library resources, but found the staff so unfriendly that she didn’t go back. I’ve had people say to me they would use the library accept they never have the books they want (we are almost at the point where there is no excuse for this in the technological age we live in for not finding the book a person needs), I sometimes wonder exactly what is going on here. In my own experience of my local library authority, crime can be so bad on our streets that people are prevented from using the library (followed to the library and harassed, your library books deliberately damaged by a criminal, etc.) – bad members of staff in the library (the one in every large’ish team I mentioned above) will also though be loosely collaborating with crime on the streets, and who will harass a member of the public who has been blacklisted by crime. My point anyway, the completely automated and electronic library has some value—if only as a strategy in dealing with crime in our society.

  7. (I say at least one person in every large’ish team in my own experience is covertly operating in some sort of criminal capacity – the whole team itself though can succumb to crime.)

  8. (A second quick footnote and edit: “stalking and harassment (including mobbing and gang stalking) is endemic in our society, and crime successfully keeps this below the surface of our society as well” – along with knowledge of the techniques and technologies that crime uses also. Apologies for entering into a somewhat graphic description of crime in our society, but it is relevant and needed I think in discussing libraries and technology.)

  9. I would imagine that the ‘pro RFID’ comments are not coming from library assistants – i.e. the people who actually serve patrons, and actually have to empty the ‘wonder machines’ of their ‘meal’ every half hour.
    Can any of the managers here point me in the direction of all the cost benefit analyses that have been done, which show that a self service RFID system is actually saving money?
    There is nothing wrong with having such a system as an ADDITION to a staffed issue desk, but the problem is that those making the decisions to buy these machines don’t actually have a clue about what is involved in their use, and more importantly, they don’t WANT to know whether there is a cost saving, nor do they want to know what the actual users think – because they might have to admit they made the wrong decision, and we can’t have that, can we… think of the managers poor little egos…

    I wonder if there could possibly be any ‘brown envelopes’ involved…
    Let me see… so-called ‘managers’ who haven’t spent even a single minute actually dealing with real patrons on the issue desk, have meetings with the makers of RFID book sorters. The manufacturers ask a ridiculous price which is obviously a rip off – but don’t worry, because the idiots in charge of the university/local authority, haven’t got a clue either, and will gladly pay up, and then the manufacturer with one of the highest prices can afford to give the ‘managers’ some little brown envelopes on completion of the deal.

    Result: the managers are happy, the manufacturers are happy, and everybody is unhappy.

    Did any of the libraries who have FORCED the self service system on their users bother to actually ASK them if they wanted it in the first place? Of course not. So much for their laughable “we are concerned about the user experience” bullshit.

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