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Advantages and Disadvantages of Using RFID Technology in Libraries

RFID use can be a controversial topic when libraries choose to convert their collections to be able to take advantage of the technology. There is little doubt that RFID will become more ubiquitous in the future, however, a library should weigh the advantages and disadvantages. Many of the advantages of RFID revolve around the actual use in libraries and using the technology to free up librarians for duties that involve more interaction with the patrons. Many of the disadvantages revolve around the technology also, but include issues surrounding security and privacy.

Reduction of staff duties

Use of RFID technology in a library can decrease the time needed for circulation duties since more than one tag can be read at a time. Patron checkout stations can additionally free up staff from these duties. The time necessary to complete an inventory of the library collection can be reduced since inventory can be accomplished with a wand reader as the staff member walks through the stacks of the collection. In addition to the inventory, this wand can also determine if items have been shelved in the correct order. Conveyor belts and sorting systems can reduce time that staff spend shelving returned items because the items can be presorted. By reducing the staff duties in these areas, staff may be used more efficiently in other areas including increased face-to-face service and increased the number of community programs.

Reduction of staff injuries

Karen Schneider, director of Library’s Index to the Internet, states that the repetitive motion required by bar code scanners, including flipping an item and angling it correctly, cost libraries millions of dollars a year in work place injuries. Some libraries, including the San Francisco Public Libraries, look to RFID as a way to reduce the repetitive stress injuries caused by sustained and repetitive motion connected to circulation duties especially. Research varies as to the amount of workman’s compensation claims that are connected to repetitive stress injuries caused by circulation duties, and to what level RFID technology will reduce these injuries and claims. 6, 7, 8


Correctly operating readers and tags can have near 100% detection rates. Since the tags and sensors communicate with the Integrated Library System (ILS) it is possible to know exactly which items are moving out of the library. The high reliability is especially important when RFID is used in theft detection.

Tag life and appearance

Vendors claim that the tag life can be at least 100,000 transactions or at least 10 years. These tags do not interfere with the appearance of the book, and can even be made to appear as a bookplate. 9

Reduction of staff duties

With the automation of many staff duties, it is possible that a reduction in staff may follow.


RFID is not an inexpensive technology. According to the report prepared for the Public Library Association (PLA), the budget for a library with 40,000 items in its collection may cost as much as $70,000. A library with 250,000 items may cost up to $333,500. This is based on the cost of $0.85 per tag, readers at circulation stations and conversion stations at $2,500 - $5,000 each. Patron self-checkout stations cost between $18,000 - $22,000 each, which is about the same as similar stations used for bar code technology. In larger libraries, it would be necessary to have more than one of these stations. Readers at the exits can cost $3,500 to $6,000, and of course would be needed at each exit.  Readers at the book to return the book to the collection cost the same as the other circulation readers, about $2,500. However, the price increases considerably when it is combined with conveyor belts and sorting system. This level of sophistication will cost the library between $45,000 and $200,000. Portable inventory wands cost at least $2,500 and the docking station to read the information cost an additional $2,000. If the information is to be transmitted wirelessly, the library could incur another $3,000 in expenses. Finally, all of these components need to be able to communicate with the ILS. To do this, the communication gateway needs to get information from a number of readers, exchange it with the circulation database, the automated library system, and the transaction database. This costs at least $15,000, two-thirds of which is the cost of the software. This total cost does not include the cost of staff time to actually add the tags to the books, the rental of the programmer for the tags, or carpentry and electrical costs that arise from installation of the equipment. 10

Susceptibility of tags

Since the RFID tags work because of radio waves, blocking these radio waves stops the entire system from working efficiently. Unfortunately, this is easily accomplished by wrapping the tag in aluminum foil. Metallic ink on book covers can also affect the transmission of the radio waves. Tags can also be susceptible to removal. Since most tags are fixed to the inside of the back cover, those who desire, could remove the tag. Tags can be inserted into the spines of the books, however not all tags are so flexible, and this does not address the issue of tags on CDs or DVDs. Also, tags may cause interference with each other when placed within 1/8th of an inch proximity.

Big brother and invasion of patron privacy

Undoubtedly, this is the greatest disadvantage of RFID technology use in libraries – is it possible to track patrons, items, and information outside of the library? If it is possible, will patrons stop using the library? What is the library’s role and responsibility in protecting patron privacy?

According to Richard W. Boss, invasion of privacy at this level is not possible, although he concedes that even misconceptions have significant consequences. In his report to the PLA he address concerns about invasion of privacy by pointing out that the tags on the books contain no patron information, and the link between the patron and the item is maintained only in the secure library system and that this link is broken as soon as the book is returned. Boss also points out that RFID tags used in libraries can only be read at a distance of a few feet. 11

Others are not so optimistic about the security of RFID tags used in libraries. Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Federation (EFF) and Peter Warfield of the Library Users Association have been outspoken, mainly through commentary in the Berkeley Daily Planet, about privacy issues especially in Berkeley, CA and San Francisco, CA libraries bringing into question the points that the public libraries have used to rationalize the use of RFID tags. 12

David Molnar, an electrical engineering doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, and UC Berkeley professor, David Wagner, have studied RFID devices and the architecture used to implement the technology at libraries. In their October 2004 paper, Molnar and Wagner identify security gaps in the currently used RFID systems in libraries as well as identify how it would be possible for outside sources to track patrons and hotlist books. They identify the focus on of the privacy concerns on the bibliographic database, because this is where information about patron’s past checkouts could be stored. This is the greatest security risk. They identify four aspects of RFID tags that are vulnerable, and how an adversary may take advantage of these vulnerabilities to gain information about a person.

Even without access to the bibliographic database, Molnar and Wagner contend that it is still possible that the patrons’ privacy can be invaded because RFID tags contain static data that is never changed. This could be information about the library that owns the book, and so it is possible for a person with the ability to read the tag can find out this information and determine the general origin of the person carrying the book. It is also possible for adversaries, those with RFID readers that use them for unauthorized data-collection, to create a hotlisting of a book. In this case, the actual book is the item of relevance. After the book’s bibliographic information, and tag information, is included in a personal database, it is possible for an adversary to identify when that book is in a public place, such as an airport.

“An unauthorized reader [would be able] to determine the tag’s identity merely through its collision-avoidance behavior” because this protocol is globally unique and is hard coded into the tag. (Molnar and Wagner) This information is embedded at the time of manufacture and after learning the collision-avoidance protocol, and adversary can possibly collect more data from the tag. Even if there are other privacy methods installed onto the tag, because the collision-avoidance protocol is embedded and unchangeable, there is a “back door” to the tag.

Molnar and Wagner also identify the security bit on read/write tags as vulnerable to vandalism. It is possible that a vandal could change this bit to read not checked out, and lock the bit in this position. After locking the bit, the vandal could protect it with a password of its own. If this object were ever to enter into a library, the bit would not be able to be modified because of the password, and the tag would have to be replaced.

The final architecture that Molnar and Wagner identified as weak from a security standpoint is the management of tag passwords. These passwords are used in the library for the tag and reader to communicate, and can be intercepted by an eavesdropper. 13

Created by Sally Egloff for LBSC 690 Information Technology at University of Maryland