IMPLEMENTING RFID TECHNOLOGY IN A CONSORTIAL ENVIRONMENT
USING A SHARED LIBRARY MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
by David Dorman
The online RFID Journal describes RFID technology as follows:
Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to automatically identify individual items. There are several methods of identifying objects using RFID, but the most common is to store a serial number that identifies a product, and perhaps other information, on a microchip that is attached to an antenna (the chip and the antenna together are called an RFID transponder or an RFID tag). The antenna enables the chip to transmit the identification information to a reader. The reader converts the radio waves returned from the RFID tag into a form that can then be passed on to computers that can make use of it.
RFID is not necessarily "better" than bar codes. The two are different technologies and have different applications, which sometimes overlap. The big difference between the two is bar codes are line-of-sight technology. That is, a scanner has to "see" the bar code to read it, which means people usually have to orient the bar code towards a scanner for it to be read. Radio frequency identification, by contrast, doesnıt require line of sight. RFID tags can be read as long as they are within range of a reader.
RFID tags have several advantages over barcodes that enable libraries that use them to save time and operate more efficiently and effectively.
1. RFID tags can be used for security as well as for status control, thereby eliminating the need to attach security strips to library items.
2. RFID systems make self checkout faster and easier for library patrons.
3. RFID portable scanners can take inventory by just being passed slowly along the library shelves, without handling each item individually.
The reason why libraries have been slow to adopt RFID technology is that RFID tags typically cost between $0.60 and $0.90 each, whereas barcodes typically cost between $0.01 and $0.025 each. Even if magnetic strips, which typically cost between $0.10 and $0.22 each, are factored into a cost comparison, the total material cost of preparing an item for use with RFID technology is 4 to 5 times as great as using a combination of barcodes and magnetic strips.
But even with this disparity, the increase in efficiency and functionality afforded by RFID technology is great enough to persuade an increasing number of libraries to implement this technology.
CONCERNS AND ISSUES WITH IMPLEMENTING RFID TECHNOLOGY IN A CONSORTIAL ENVIRONMENT
Just as barcode standards are needed for libraries to use barcodes in a consortial environment, RFID standards are also needed to use RFID technology in a consortial environment. The necessary barcode standards are well known, relatively straight forward, and have been successfully implemented in a consortial environment for many years. The standards needed for using RFID technology in a consortial environment have not been well explored, and the technology itself is more complex than barcode technology. In addition, it is likely that in many consortia, some libraries will begin to implement RFID technology, while other libraries will continue to use barcodes and magnetic strips. The need for a shared library management system (LMS) to support a mixed barcode/magnetic strip/RFID tag environment, while still maintaining interoperability and status consistency among all items and patrons, is a challenge that must be addressed.
How item status and security are handled by one library in a consortium directly affects all other members. Because of this, and because implementing RFID technology is an expensive investment, all significant issues of compatibility and interoperability need to be identified before RFID product selection and implementation take place. For all practical purposes, planning should proceed on the assumption that some libraries in a consortium will use RFID technology, while others will not, and that RFID technology will be implemented on a local library level rather than on a consortial level. If RFID technology is implemented consortia-wide and on a consortial level, then most of the compatibility and interoperability challenges below will be avoided.
Here are the major compatibility challenges of implementing RFID technology in a mixed consortial environment:
1. The RFID item identification numbers must be compatible with the consortiumıs existing barcode numbers.
2. Every library in the consortium must have the ability to efficiently process every item owned by any other member of the consortium.
3. If the possibility exists that more than one vendorıs RFID system will eventually be used by consortium members, RFID interoperability standards must be developed and adhered to.
In an environment in which some libraries will continue to scan barcodes while other libraries will use RFID tags for changing item status, it would be advisable to require the use of codabar symbology in the ID field of the RFID tags. This will allow the LMS to continue to recognize and deal with the same library prefixes and item sequence numbers that are on the barcode strips and that the system is already programmed to recognize.
Any library in a consortial environment that begins to use an RFID system will be starting with a large number of items that are already barcoded. Since other consortium members will continue to need access to the item barcode number of those books when they leave the owning library for reciprocal borrowing or interlibrary loan, it is important that the RFID tag number and the barcode number be identical.
One way to accomplish this would be through ³smart RFID tagging² in which large numbers of RFID tags are pre-programmed with existing barcode numbers in shelf list order. This would enable the entire collection, or large portions of the entire collection, to be given RFID tags in a very short time period. Another way would be to use an RFID system that supports the rapid programming of individual RFID tags with the existing item number in the holding record. A strategy of putting RFID tags on items returned from circulation and programming them before putting them back on the shelves would be one way to avoid the large up-front costs of ³smart RFID tagging² as a prerequisite to using RFID tags for circulation control.
USE OF EYE READABLE BARCODE NUMBERS
Eye readable barcode numbers and scanable barcodes will continue to be needed on all items in a consortial environment. Human readable numbers are needed for remote renewals, by phone or web, and for any other purpose in which it is important for a person to visually identify an item by its ID number. Scanable barcodes will continue to be needed so that libraries that do not use RFID technology can scan items owned by libraries that do use RFID technology. If scanable barcodes are not put on all items, libraries that continue to rely on barcodes will be forced to key in human readable barcode numbers when dealing with reciprocal borrowing and interlibrary loans of items that belong to libraries using RFID technology. This will cause the operations of the consortium as a whole to suffer when one or more libraries implement RFID technology.
Whether eye readable barcode numbers along with scanable barcodes should be printed on the RFID tag or attached to the item with a separate barcode strip is a choice that should be examined with regard to cost, convenience, and efficiency. But the choice made will not affect either RFID or barcode scanning functionality. Printing eye readable barcode numbers on RFID tags is necessary if ³smart RFID tagging² is done in conjunction with the initial conversion to an RFID system. If barcode numbers are automatically downloaded in batch mode from the LMS holding record to large numbers of RFID chips before they are attached to the physical items, the tags that contain those chips will need to have the barcode number printed on them to make sure that the correct RFID tag is attached to each book. (Note: an RFID tag consists of a combination chip/antenna that is attached to an adhesive backed label which is in turn attached to the item.)
In a consortial environment in which different libraries use different magnetic security systems, there are no compatibility issues because any vendorıs magnetic security strips can be sensitized and de-sensitized by any other vendorıs magnetic tape equipment. Even if some libraries in the consortium are not using a magnetic security system, no confusion with regard to security status will result as long as books with security strips are de-sensitized whenever they leave a library that uses a magnetic security system and re-sensitized when they are returned.
In a mixed environment in which some libraries do not use a security system, other libraries use magnetic strips, and still others use RFID tags for security, the situation is more complex.
Some RFID systems are read-only. This means that the security status is registered in the RFID equipment. (To my knowledge, no library management system registers security status.) Other RFID systems are read-write. In such read-write systems, the library may have a choice of registering the security status of an item either on the RFID tag itself or in the RFID equipment. If the RFID equipment is not installed on a consortium-wide basis, but is instead installed only in one or more individual libraries, then the only way to avoid confusion with regard to security status is to use a read-write system and store the security status on the RFID tag.
If security status is registered on the item itself, whether by a magnetic security strip or an RFID tag, then no security status confusion will result as long as the lending library de-sensitizes the magnetic strip or RFID tag when the item leaves its library and re-sensitizes the strip or tag when the item is returned. However, in an environment in which the RFID tags of some libraries are read-write and others are read only, incompatibility with regard to registering security status will result, even if the RFID tags are otherwise compatible.
The need for interoperability among multiple RFID installations in a single consortium using the same library management system is not confined to the issue of security. For multiple RFID installations to be compatible and interoperable, two conditions must be met, whether the same vendorıs equipment is used by each individual library, or whether different libraries use different RFID vendors:
1. The technical communication protocols by which the RFID systems establish a communication session with the tags must be the same in all RFID equipment used in the consortium.
2. The data model must be the same in all RFID systems used in the consortium. (The implication of this requirement is that if there is more than one RFID vendor in the consortium, each RFID vendorıs equipment must either provide off-the-shelf support for the common data model specified by the consortium or be programmable so that it can be modified to support the common data model.)
1. Codabar numbers that conform to existing institution prefixes and item sequence numbers need to be used on the RFID tags.
2. Barcode labels should be put on all items, even those with RFID tags, as long as some libraries are still using barcodes.
3. The consortium as a whole needs to decide on a standard RFID communications protocol and a standard data model that all RFID vendors must adhere to, and all RFID vendors under consideration must demonstrate an ability to conform to them.
Libraries installing an RFID system will continue to need scanners with both circulation workstations and self-checkout units, in order to scan barcodes of ILL materials and reciprocal borrowing returns from non-RFID libraries.
Portable RFID scanners for taking inventory are expensive, so it would be a significant cost savings if such equipment could be shared among those libraries in the consortium that install RFID systems. The conditions under which such equipment could be shared should be examined as part of an assessment of overall RFID compatibility.
I would like to thank folks at Dynix and VTLS for letting me bounce ideas off them, and to the staff at Lincoln Trail Libraries System for reading drafts and suggesting improvements. All errors and omissions, however, are my own. Additional comments and suggestion for improvements in this paper are welcome and will be incorporated into any subsequent updates.