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?

RFID in Libraries

RFID in Libraries: Myths, FAQs, & ROI
LITA RFID Interest Group
Notes from the June 28, 2008, program at the American Library Association National Conference

Karen McPheeters, Farmington Public Library, NM
Lucie Osborn and Carey Hartman, Laramie County Library System, WY
Ross McLachlan, Phoenix Public Library, AZ

Karen McPheeters
Farmington Public Library, NM

Opening a new library with the same full-time staffing level, 52,000 square feet.
Needed to use Technology to Maximize Staff, Building, and Collection.
180,000 tags purchased; tagged 140,000 items in two weeks
Purchased the technology without really knowing if they would like it.

Goals realized
Catalyst to simplifying all processes
Reduction in theft – whole library approach
Great inventory control – can do “on the fly” inventories
Reduced time from check-in to shelf – immediate to the patron – 45 minutes to the shelf
Better shelf management
Very few mistakes with check-in
Redeployment of staff – more time with patrons – we communicate
No repetitive motion injuries in RFID
More staff time spent on customer service
100% self check since August 2003 – six self-checks
No lines anywhere (except sometimes at the self-check machines)
The smart return generates a receipt with a coupon for $2.00 off on fines.
They collect more money on fines now than they did before
60% smart return
Easy conversion – 140,000 items in three weeks
Cataloging errors found and corrected

Unexpected returns on investment
Training aspects – learning that we could teach all of our patrons new tricks
Created a culture of change and a staff that desires to learn
Better balance between a “protection” driven and a “service” driven organization
They use RFID tags on CD cases and security tags on the discs.

Lucie Osborn and Carey Hartman
Laramie County Library System, Cheyenne, WY

The Reason for RFID
New faculty
Current technology
Ease of use
More direct customer service
Moved from and old facility with 38,000 sq. ft. on one floor to a new facility with 103,000 sq. ft. on three floors.
This library previously had no security system.

What we would do differently
More careful training and more spot-checking. Some people were putting tags on top of the picture of the elephant that was an integral part of the story on the last page of a children’s book. Other were covering up maps at the end of the book.
Follow the guidelines of vendor in tagging AV items. Local people wanted to put tags on every piece of AV sets, vendor said this wasn’t a good idea.
Utilize volunteers in a different manner.

Negative perceptions
Privacy concerns for patrons, job security concerns for employees. Public thought that the library was making them do all the work and the library would be providing less service.

All floors have a very obvious service point
Had trainers come in to discuss the roving support concept with employees. Helps patrons at the point of “puzzlement”.
14 self-checks scattered around three floors.

Lessons Learned
Physics of AV items and RFID – security aspects of RFID tags do not work with AV items – possibly due to the metals in CDs
Furniture – metal in furniture is also possibly interfering with RFID tags
This library wanted to achieve a 90 % self-checkout rate. AV and table problems are making this impossible.
Some AV materials will not fit into self-service units.
Self check-in includes a conveyor belt and automated sorting system. Library has a window into the sorting room, and patrons like watching the sorting process.

Return on Investment
Open less than a year – don’t feel that they have a full idea of ROI yet
Customer service/job enhancement
More interesting work for employees – employees can work with patrons at the “point of puzzlement”; additional reader’s advisory services
Less repetitive motion
The most important ROI is that staff have more time to work with patrons.

Ross McLachlan
Phoenix Public Library

14 branches
Large central library
All locations open 72 hours per week
Collection of 2.2 million items
15 million+ annual circulation
900,000 – 1 million registered borrowers
The reasons for RFID
In the last 7 years
64% increase in circulation
25% increase in door count
87% increase in reading program
803% increase in website usage
In the last 3 years
145% increase in public PC usage
The reason why self check lead to RFID
Staff budget reductions in 2002/2003
Began using self checks at the 4 busiest locations in 2002
Achieved 80% check-outs via self-check machines the 1st year
Expand the convenience aspect of the customer experience at checkout
Achieve greater staff efficiencies at checkin
Studied the marketplace
Lead to the conclusions to use RFID
Current status
Four branches are fully RFID and self-checkout
99% of the 2.2 million item collection has been converted to RFID since October
These branches have consistently achieved 95% – 92% check-outs on self check
The service has received positive customer feedback
In January 2009 the entire system will be totally RFID.