You’re Getting Warmer: Unleashing the Real Power of RFID

I ran across an interesting post over on Michael Stephensblog. Valérie Madill created an interesting senior grad project. Go visit her project and see for yourself: Looking at Libraries: Defining Space Through Content. I’ve seen a few web comments. Some people like it, some people really dislike it, and some just don’t get it. Like it or not, it’s another way to think about organizing library materials. People have tried a number of different organization schemes. Of course Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal come to mind. Other people have experimented with color arrangement too. Check out this and this and this. I think there was even one library that experimented with arranging a significant portion of their materials by color.

So ya thought this post was about RFID, did ya? Well it is. The post on Michael’s blog reminded me of an idea I’ve thought about several times.

Ever get a crazy idea and wonder just what it would take to make it work? A lot of libraries are now using RFID tags with their materials. According to Wikipedia’s entry, there are both passive and active RFID tags (among other types). Passive tags, with no internal power source, have a range of about 10 centimeters up to several meters. Active tags have an internal power source and can broadcast in more challenging environments and over longer distances.

So here’s my crazy idea. Some patrons will never learn to use LC or Dewey call numbers. They just won’t. For those patrons then, libraries’ classification systems – which are designed to help people FIND materials – actually become a barrier. For these patrons, not only do the classification systems become an impediment to finding materials, they may discourage patrons from even looking for them.

But what if we could use RFID systems to help patrons find materials? I’m envisioning a library setting with some sort of active RFID tag marking ranges and passive tags used on the individual items. Remember playing that game where a person tells you "you’re getting warmer" or "you’re getting colder" as you moved closer to or farther away from a designated object? Imagine handing our patrons an RFID locator device that can read the RFID tags. The patron or a library employee keys in a call number, and we’re off and running. The RFID locator reads the active tags and guides the patron in the direction of the desired item. Perhaps a visual map on the device leads us through the building. As we move the locator across a section of shelves, it tells us whether we’re getting "warmer" or "colder" as we approach the item we want. This strikes me as a practical way to help library patrons who don’t understand the classification systems. Even if they don’t understand the classification system, an RFID locator device would give them a level of self-sufficiency in the stacks.

Now I’m not speaking from practical experience. Our library doesn’t use RFID, so I’m not speaking from practical experience. I’m just what-if-ing. But I think the real power of a technology lies not just in what the creator or vendor thinks it should do; the true power is the new applications that users imagine for it. So how about it? For those who know more about the technology, is it possible? Vendors – how about a product?

2 thoughts on “You’re Getting Warmer: Unleashing the Real Power of RFID”

  1. My nerdier viewpoint disagrees. An RFID that calls to you requires enough power to reach over that distance. Who will get stuck with changing the fraction of a million batteries with fresh ones? Since I’m a page, that should be a librarian’s job. Of course, radio spectrum is limited. A fraction of a million channels must be carved out of somebody else’s channels. Right now, the sleight of hand by the FCC is the new cell phone channels sold for $billions, but over 35 of the over the air Television channels will disappear to make room as part of the DTV Transition. Assume you find the desired book, if you are surrounded by thousands of little microwave transmitters, you could suffer brain damage if you lingered too long. Privacy could be a problem, if the location of a book can be determined by the magic box. The FBI or Evildoers would easily track who is near what books. If the problem is simply to direct the patron to a particular shelf, GPS navigation should be adequate, since the shelf with certain desired books doesn’t move. Libraries shouldn’t jump on the RFID bandwagon. New means comes with bugs, and we don’t need bugged books.

  2. Thanks for your input. I was actually thinking that the self-powered devices should be used in areas like range markers or end panels. That would get the user in the general area without worrying about batteries in every single tagged item.

    I agree that privacy is always a concern. In presentations I’ve seen, the libraries seem to be comfortable with the choices they’ve made. Since we don’t use RFID in our library though, I don’t know about all of the privacy implications.

    As for GPS, in our library (and I suspect in some others) this simply wouldn’t be an option. The device can’t lock onto the satellites. We actually did some informal testing in the building just to see if GPS receivers would work. We were barely able to to get a partial connection when we were standing right by a window, and we lost that as we moved into the stacks.

    Of course if we could convince our patrons to learn the classification systems we use, all our problems would be solved! 😉

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