patron borrowing items at library self checkout kiosk

RFID in Libraries, Part I

Considerations for a library to invest in RFID technology

The library is a free institution that helps community members engage in lifelong learning activities and is considered a safe place for everyone, regardless of social, cultural, and economic backgrounds. Libraries are tasked with creating more relevant programs, partnerships, outreach, innovation and community connections every day. Today’s library users enjoy inspiring spaces, helpful staff, robust resource collections, free wifi and public access computers. Considered an essential learning hub that allows community members to extend their knowledge through carefully crafted programs, spaces, and human connections, libraries must find ways to ensure their staff time is focused in the areas with the largest impact. 

In order to deliver positive experiences for both library users and staff, libraries have looked for methods and technologies to automate their workflows and processes. The leading technology, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a technology many libraries around the world implement to increase staff efficiencies and provide users with a convenient self-service experience. To decide if the outcomes justify making an investment in RFID technology, library management should consider the benefits to the library, the staff and library users, the near-term costs and the arguments for introducing new technology.

library patron borrowing items at self checkout kiosk
Reasons to Adopt

Libraries of all sizes and types have implemented RFID technology since it was first adopted in 1998. RFID technology helps libraries improve customer satisfaction, create staff workflow efficiencies and become more fiscally responsible.  The common reasons libraries state for making the investment are detailed below:

1. Customer satisfaction. Books and other materials move in and out of the library faster with RFID technology. For instance, library users can check out multiple items simultaneously at a self-checkout unit equipped with RFID technology. This means they spend less time waiting for other users to complete their self-service transaction or for library staff at a circulation desk to finish with the customer ahead of them. When RFID technology is combined with automated materials handling systems, it has proven to speed the process for getting high-demand items back on the shelves quickly. Additionally, those items are more likely to be shelved accurately, which increases the user’s convenience and reduces frustration.

2. Staff productivity and satisfaction. With RFID, librarians can do more in less time. Some of the most time-consuming tasks – check-ins, checkouts, searching for holds or lost items, and shelf management – can be fully or partially automated with RFID. That opens opportunities for improving current services and furthering the mission of the library. At many libraries, the installation of an RFID system has allowed librarians to create a more diverse set of programs and partnerships to address the evolving needs of their particular community.

This boost in productivity isn’t always an additional benefit; often, it’s a chance to return to the level of service users enjoyed before circulation increased and budgets were cut. For other libraries, RFID is a proactive step, an investment today that will ensure adequate service if staffing levels don’t keep pace with constant increases in circulation.

open library interior with staff and patrons

For many library users, the increased interaction with the library staff is the greatest benefit of RFID. When librarians spend less time on routine physical tasks, they can pay more attention to human connections and the customer experience. 

3. Staff health. Many library professionals believe that circulation activities increase the occurrence of repetitive stress injuries. These activities include the mass handling of books, desensitizing and resensitizing materials and opening media cases to check contents. RFID systems do not fully eliminate these activities, but they drastically reduce the need for item handling by librarians. Some libraries have turned to RFID systems as a strategy for reducing manual materials handling that can lead to repetitive stress problems.

4. Fiscal responsibility. For many library boards, the strongest argument for investing in RFID is that the technology typically pays for itself in two or three years. At a time of rising circulations, RFID systems can help keep staff costs constant and predictable. Material costs due to lost or misplaced items can be reduced. In fact, many libraries find thousands of dollars worth of “lost” items when they first implement an RFID shelf management program. RFID security systems reduce materials loss – a huge ongoing expense for libraries – and ensure items are correctly checked out. After the investment has been recouped, RFID systems continue to generate benefits for 10 years or longer.

library staff member processing books
Reasons to Wait

Most library systems acknowledge the benefits of RFID but haven’t decided to implement the technology yet. A few commonly cited reasons are detailed below:

1. Privacy concerns. For some, privacy issues are seen as the primary concern. People want assurances that no one will be able to track their personal library activity through RFID. We understand the value libraries place on their user’s privacy, and RFID adoption in libraries has been implemented with a full commitment to the industry’s promise to patron privacy. We believe that educating libraries on the technical capabilities of RFID will clarify much of the concern over what can and cannot be known using this technology.

RFID tags used in libraries do not contain user information. They only contain item barcode IDs and library-related information to each tag, meaning user privacy cannot be compromised. Furthermore, the high-frequency RFID tags used in library items cannot be read at more than 18 to 24 inches from a reader antenna. With larger, specialized high-power antennas, such as those found in our RFID gate premium, tags can be read within a 3 to 5-foot range. It’s highly impractical for covert surveillance to be able to read beyond 6 feet. 

In addition, the RFID tags applied to library materials are passive and not powered – they do not emit a signal. A reader tuned to the RFID tag’s frequency, such as a self-checkout unit, must be present for the tag to emit a signal. 

2. Expense. Some library boards like the idea of installing an RFID system, but they want to wait for another year (or two) before making the investment. The reality is that libraries need to work within limited budgets and they have many areas of investment to consider. From operating funds to maintain or expand library programs, staffing, services, and collections, to capital building funds to update, renovate or build new library facilities, libraries need to think strategically about how they spend their money. Some libraries choose to wait on their RFID implementation. 

Because RFID systems generate significant savings in library operating expenses and pay themselves off in just a few years, an investment in RFID can be justified any time a library can acquire the funding.

creative team brainstorming ideas on large poster board

An investment in RFID quickly generates savings, which can then be applied to additional areas of investment need. During an RFID conversion, most libraries find many items that were thought to be lost or stolen, reducing their need to replace those items. Utilizing RFID technology also improves community perception, showcasing the library as a modern, innovative and high-tech establishment that is investing in the improvement of the overall user experience and focusing their staff on personal interactions.

3. Disruption. Occasionally, a librarian will acknowledge that an RFID system would be a great improvement with obvious benefits for both staff and users but thinks the conversion process would be too disruptive in addition to other library changes that are already in progress.

Conversion to RFID can be swift and painless. With the more efficient systems, most users won’t even know the conversion is taking place because only one book or item is removed from the shelf at a time. In these systems, a cart is positioned in the aisle between shelves. Staff, or volunteers, work item by item, converting from barcodes to RFID. The process is surprisingly fast; with a little practice, up to 450 items can be converted per hour. Meanwhile, users can still access the shelves and they experience virtually no inconvenience.

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