Monday, August 23, 2004

Thoughts on RFID in public libraries

Last Friday I met with a number of chief technology officers and technical services managers at from the major public libraries in Ohio. We got together to discuss the desirability of proceeding with RFID at this time. Among the topics and issues were RFID's applications and uses within the general library and public library environments; the status of standards; and the implications for materials security and patron privacy.

Patron privacy is something library value but in our discussion it didn't come up as being a the Achillies heel that some present as a problem with this technology. Privacy concerns are manageable and Ohio libraries implementing RFID may want to establish their own best practices to ensure patron privacy and to minimize public concerns.

Suprisingly it was economic factors that led to a concensus opinion that the the risks are such that a 2004 or 2005 implementation schedule would be ill-advised.

The lack of standards and high personnel costs associated with barcode-to-RFID conversion were cited as the most compelling risks. The cost of conversion risk is particularly obvious if one calculated the costs of having to change RFID tags due to a change in technology. As libraries continue to form resource sharing cooperatives, it will be more important that RFID systems wouldinteroperate.

Even if the all above risks were mitigated with a maturation of the product in the library market, a critical costs/benefits analysis would probably support my feeling that this technology's time hasn't come.

One reason is that the high volume write-once-read-many RFIDs such as what might be used at a Wal-Mart may never have an application in the public library environment. They just don't have the durability for reading hundreds of times. The re-writeable RFID tags found in current library applications are still in the $0.50 range in large volume purchases. That alone will continue to challenge the cost effectiveness of RFID particularly within libraries that that have adopted or plan to implement a high volume self-serve circulation strategy.

The long standing problem of security of materials, particularly CDs and DVDs were definitely seen as a bigger problem than any solved by RFID. Attempting to use RFID for materials security may be a bigger problem as RFID-based security is much easier to disable than what most of us are using currently to secure materials. The most sensible experiment in RFID may be for capital assets management.

Here is what I told a member of my management council on Friday when I returned from our meeting, "If somebody wants to be the first kid on the block to implement RFID, then let them go at it. It may get them a headline, but I don't know what else."


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