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Why librarians should switch on their radios

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Radio-frequency identification is emerging as a good way to improve automation and security in many business sectors. Birgit Lindl, from Bibliotheca RFID Library Systems, reports on why RFID is important for libraries

For more than five years, libraries all over the world have been taking advantage of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. Current market research shows that RFID systems are now used in about 20 million books worldwide.

The driver for today's libraries to adopt RFID is the need to increase efficiency and reduce cost. Automation and self-service can help libraries of all sizes toward achieving these aims, and RFID has the added advantage that it can also provide security for the range of different media on offer in libraries.

The technology can also improve circulation and inventory control, which helps to optimise the allocation of labour and financial resources. This means that libraries can relieve their professional employees of routine work and operational tasks. For scientific libraries, this frees up more time for research and other tasks.

Recent developments in hardware and software for RFID systems have boosted the potential of this technology in library automation and security. 'Today, the one important result for libraries is the ability to use non-proprietary systems, now that the new generation of RFID-chips with standard ISO 15693 (to be integrated into ISO 18000-3) is available,' explains Dr Christian Kern, system development manager of Bibliotheca RFID Library Systems, a Swiss company specialising in such systems for libraries. 'With this technology, libraries do not have to depend on one single supplier for tags. As libraries make a long-term investment, which mainly consists of the quantity of tags needed, this is a very important requirement.'

The company has already equipped more than 20 major public and university libraries with RFID systems. These include libraries in Vienna, Stuttgart, Leuven and Winterthur, as well as sites in the USA, such as the Mastics-Moriches Library in New York State. Another 30 installations are currently in progress worldwide, including the library of the Max-Planck-Institute in Dresden, Germany.

The benefits of RFID
The reliability of the system, its ease of operation, and the flexibility of tagging all kinds of media easily, are important criteria in choosing an RFID system. There should be no need for an additional server, which means that products can be connected easily to a library's network. Interfaces to the most popular management systems worldwide also already exist.

There are three essential system components of an RFID library management system: RFID tags; terminals for check-out/check-in operations; and sensor gates. There is also the option of a portable scanner, and an automatic book return, with optional sorter for the backroom of the library.

The core of the system is the RFID tag, which can be fixed inside a book's front cover or directly onto CDs and videos. This tag is equipped with a programmeable chip and an antenna, and is no bigger than a credit card. The technology uses radio communication: a reader, which is integrated into a RFID check out unit, activates data transmission from the chip to the library's database.

These tags can store far more information about an item than a barcode, which has been the traditional approach to library automation. In addition, RFID chips are read/write, so data can be updated whenever necessary. These chips generally store information such as the 'barcode number', author, title, copy number, library code, location in the library, systematic group, and present status (whether the item has been checked out or not). They also record if the package is, for example, a combination of a book and a CD. Having all this information readily available on the media chip means that time-consuming data retrieval from databases can be omitted.

Another difference between RFID and barcodes is that barcodes require line-of-sight. A person must orient the barcode towards a scanner for it to be read. RFID chips, by contrast, do not require line-of-sight and can be read as long as they are within the range of a reader - a reading distance of approximately one foot is sufficient for a desktop reader. The benefit for librarians is less repetitive work and fewer stress injuries.

In the new main library in Winterthur, Switzerland, which opened in January 2003, for example, around 560,000 items are checked out per year. In the past, this would have required 560,000 barcodes to be scanned manually, which would be both staff-intensive and time-consuming.

RFID also allows the use of a single label for both circulation and security. When newly acquired media are entered into the collection, only one intelligent tag needs to be attached. This cuts manual effort per operation in half. RFID tags can be used for status control as well as for security checks. There is no need for an additional security stripe. On average, one person is able to equip 10,000 items with RFID tags within three to four weeks.

Information regarding the restriction of items to a specific group of users can be taken from the library management system. If an unauthorised user tried to check out an item and take it out of the library through the sensor gates, an alarm would be set off. The sensor gates function as antennas and have a reading distance of three feet between them.

Users can also issue books to themselves using this technology, making circulation faster and easier. This is a particular advantage to scientific libraries, where recently published books often experience a high demand. Bibliotheca's BiblioChip system, for example, allows at least five books to be checked out in one process without staff assistance. The media are put on a desktop device that scans the information and updates the library's database with the checked-out status within milliseconds. The user receives a receipt with titles and due dates. This enables users to be totally independent of any staff.

RFID technology means people can serve themselves

Automatic book return offers similar benefits and can optimise the check-in process dramatically. Users can return items 24 hours a day into special boxes. The book is identified by a RFID reader unit as it is inserted into the return slot, and then placed into a bin. If this is connected to a multiple sorter in the background, then the books can be directly integrated into their systematic group or separated out if they are already marked as being on hold for another user.

This return station also removes the book or other medium from the user's library account and reactivates the security function in the chip.

Librarians can also maintain their inventory using a portable inventory scanner. Such a device can be passed along the shelves to enable the inventory to be checked automatically, rather than handling each item individually. Previous systems relied on lists being corrected manually and then transferred to the database by hand.

Bibliotheca's portable BiblioWand 'reads' the data out of the shelves and compares it to the database of the main system within minutes. This means that a missing book or a misplaced item can be detected quickly. Collecting statistics is also simplified. For example, a librarian could determine how many times a serial collection is used.

Implementing an RFID-system does not require existing user cards to be replaced. The parallel use of barcode cards or magnetic ID cards for identification is still possible.

In such a situation, the RFID system supplier can provide an RFID-card with an interior design similar to the tag. Containing a programmable chip and an antenna, this ID-card can carry much more information than the cards that were used previously. The chip card can be programmed with facilities such as access control to a lobby room or to internet use. In addition, the card can include a payment function that enables use of, for example, a photocopier or coffee machine.

The Mastics-Moriches Community Library in the state of New York carried out a time and cost analysis to compare the use of Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) and RFID systems for circulation and found that the latter gave a saving in labour time of around 85 per cent.

Dr Rolf Weiss, director of the public libraries in Winterthur, confirms the significance of automation: 'Without RFID, we would not be able to run the libraries at all. Having eight floors in the main library, assistance and service desks at least on every floor are absolutely necessary. With RFID, we could finally relieve employees from routine work and appoint them to their main task of providing advice to the readers.'

The advantages of RFID have also been identified by the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. The campus library has one million volumes stored in open and closed stacks within an area of more than 10,000 m2 and is open for 14 hours per day throughout the week. However, the complete library is run by only 20 full-time employees, and just one staff member and two students look after the library in the evenings and on Saturdays. 'RFID technology is one of our key investments in the automation of the library's repetitive processes,' explains Ludo Holans, the campus librarian. 'In order to manage all the work, the support of RFID technology was fundamental.'

Further information
Bibliotheca RFID Library Systems: www.bibliotheca-rfid.com and www.d-techdirect.com (distribution partner in the UK and Ireland)