Wednesday, 21 November 2012

'RFID, Self Service and the future of library services' - a guest post by Mick Fortune

The following guest post 'RFID, Self Service and the future of library services' was kindly sent to me by Mick Fortune, founder member of Voices for the Library and leading RFID consultant -

Much has been said lately about the threat of RFID to the future of the UK library service.
I recently wrote a short piece for RFID Arena about the use of the technology in libraries which neglected to point out the negative impact on staffing levels that so often accompanies its introduction. My defence for not having done so was that this was a piece written for a global organisation to introduce those interested primarily in the technology to its potential uses in the library.
I called the piece “Can RFID save libraries?” because I am a passionate advocate for library services, particularly public library services, and hoped that the article might provoke some non-library, non-technical individuals into thinking about the wider uses to which the technology might be put in a library context.
There is no doubt in my mind however that the most popular use of RFID remains the introduction of self-service facilities (lending and returning stock) and that this is often done in order to reduce staff numbers.
Which is a pity. On several counts.
For the staff in those services where the technology is used to replace them it is obviously a personal tragedy for them. Interestingly the use of self-service to replace staff appears to be far more common in the public library service. Ironically academic institutions are far more likely to introduce the technology to extend opening hours or increase interaction between staff and readers to the mutual benefit of both – something that the more enlightened (and successful) public library services are doing.
But it’s not just a tragedy for staff, it may also be a tragedy for the service.
Why do I say this?
Self-service became hugely popular in the UK at a time when most other markets in the world were having reservations about using the technology at all. In the USA concern over the privacy of the individual led to legal challenges, and a virtual shutdown of the introduction of the technology. Many US libraries still don’t use it for the wide range of activities that their UK counterparts do – so why were UK libraries so eager to invest?
It seems to have been a combination of economic and peer pressures. UK librarians faced a perfect storm of reduced budgets and the sudden appearance of self-service machines across the country. Councillors wanted to know why their library didn’t have the new machines, council officers pressured library staff to reduce costs by investing in self-service.
The problem was that no-one was taking the time to understand what they were buying.
The very earliest adopters of RFID in libraries were in what we Brits still call ‘mainland’ Europe. In Denmark and Holland in particular the technology took off (and has been used to very good effect to improve library services as a whole). This was largely made possible by the early realisation by librarians in these two countries that there would be considerable long term and competitive benefits in developing something called a common ‘data model’. It’s a very simple idea – all libraries agree to use the same format and the same data on their RFID tags. That makes it possible to buy the equipment, tags and software on the open market. It also enables libraries to share resources, create a national lending service and protect their investment in the future.
None of this happened in the UK – although many librarians now claim that they thought that it had.
Consequently the majority of UK libraries that have invested heavily in RFID solutions have obtained none of the advantages enjoyed by their European neighbours – but inadvertently accepted all of the risks of early adoption. Ironically it was the market, rather than the librarians, that eventually delivered a global data standard that is now – too late for many – being deployed in most US, European and ANZ libraries.
A tragedy for the service?
Well at best an opportunity missed. To recover from these errors and be able to take advantage of the new services that will now be developed for a global market  most pre-2011 installations (the ISO data standard was adopted in the UK in 2011) – and even many more recent ones – face the cost of additional investment to reprogram stock. It’s a stark choice – accept the limitations of having bought proprietary and often unique solutions – or spend the money to join the emerging mainstream.
There are other problems here too – for which advice has been freely available but widely ignored since 2003.
Smartphones can now read (and write) library tags. That is of course an opportunity – but also a threat.
Self-service machines purchased from library budgets are now being used to pay council tax, parking fines and generally interact with a wide range of local authority services. This may be great innovation (and it is) but one wonders whether such plans formed part of public consultations (as apparently happened in the Isle of Wight) before the money was spent? Did the public really vote for the book fund to be spent on devices to make council tax payments faster?
Privacy is now becoming a concern in the UK too. Ironically, as the US emerges from its concerns over ‘hot listing’ and random scanning the UK may be plunged into the same morass.
So that’s my take on the threat of RFID. But it’s important to remember that it could also deliver a vastly improved and more useful service if used thoughtfully.


  1. There was definitely NO CONSULATION with the public over self service machines/RFID on the Isle of Wight, the council here is totally autocratic- they decide what they intend to do and do it regardless of the wishes of their electorate, they have even given misleading evidence to the DCMS Select Committee.

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