An Emerging Technology:
Radio Frequency Identification

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RFID Use in Libraries

Libraries across the United States and around the world have begun to use RFID technologies to streamline the materials handling, inventory control, and check-out, check-in process. The technology used in libraries is the same technology used in other applications of passive tag RFID. In the library setting, RFID is used to reach two key goals: sightless identification for a variety of applications and theft detection.

RFID Tags in Libraries

The RFID tags used in libraries are passive tags so the tags do not need an energy source of their own, and therefore can be quite small. There are three different types of passive tags that can be used in a library, information center, or archive. Each of these types of tags has an antenna etched onto a microchip that has at least a 64 bit capacity. The tags differ in how the information to the tag is written. Read only tags are not re-writable and the unique identification code is encoded when the tag is manufactured. Write once-read many (WORM) tags, can be encoded at the library to match the bar code numbers if those numbers are currently in use. This tag cannot be rewritten but information about the book title and author can be added. Read/write tags are the most commonly used tags for libraries because they have the ability to have information added and changed as needed. Data concerning the library branch can be updated. Additionally, these tags can have a security bit encoded that can be turned on and off by the reader.

RFID readers in Libraries

RFID readers create an electromagnetic field around them. When the tag passes through this field it is read. The position of the tag within this field is irrelevant, so long as the tag is within the 1-3 ft. range of the reader. Readers have the ability to deal with a number of tags at the same time. Libraries can use readers in different locations in the library to accomplish different functions. Readers at the staff work stations of the circulation desk will allow the staff to check items into and from the library’s collection. Readers at patron self check out station allow the patron to do the same. Larger walk-through readers at the exits of the library can be used for theft control. There are two types of readers that can be used at the exits, one that communicates with the Integrated Library System (ILS) to determine the circulation status of the item, and another type that reads the security bit written onto the tag at checkout. Readers at the book drop can be used to return items to the library’s collection. Additionally, the book drop readers can be part of a larger system that includes conveyor belts and sorters to separate the items for return to different locations in the library. Readers can also be portable to read groups of items to complete an inventory of the library. The readers can determine if an object is present, and if an object is in the correct location without having staff actually touch the object.  3

RFID Security in Libraries

By using read/write tags in combination with exit readers, libraries will be able to use the RFID system for theft detection. The security bit can be deactivated at checkout. Then, the exit readers will not react to the security bit. If the bit is active, because the item was not checked out, the item will set off the alarm at the exit sensors. Some libraries use a surveillance system that is triggered by this alarm so the person taking the item though the exit will be caught on video. When the item is returned to the library, this security bit is reversed.

Libraries Currently using RFID

Libraries currently using different combinations of RFID technology include, among others, the University of Las Vegas libraries, New Hanover Libraries in Wilmington, NC, and the Santa Clara City libraries in Santa Clara, CA. The Netherlands plans to make RFID technology ubiquitous in all of its public libraries, with information able to travel between the libraries in the next 4-5 years. The Vatican Library plans to tag 2 million pieces of it 40 million piece collection. Emilia Di Bernardo, the vice president of Seret, the vendor of the tags for the Vatican Library claims that the tags are perfect for the historical documents because they do not damage the documents in anyway and allows for “not only an inventory but a way to manage the books. This way staff always know where all the books are.” 4

Alternatives to RFID

Obviously, it is possible for a library to function without the use of RFID technology as they have been functioning long before the introduction of
this technology. Besides paper and direct hand control as the alternative to any technology, bar codes and a bar code reader can be used to check books into and out of the library’s collection. Electromagnetic or radio frequency tags can be used for security purposes. It is this combination that many libraries are currently using. However, the bar code needs to be directly in the line of sight for the reader to gather the information, and only one bar code can be read at a time. Inventory can be accomplished using the bar codes and a portable scanner, but each book needs to be handled by the staff so the bar code can be exposed to the reader. Neither security option is related to the use of bar codes. The following chart compares the use of bar codes and RFID.

Topic Bar codes RFID
Line of sight line of sight is required, the operator knows exactly what item is being scanned no line of sight is required, human intervention is eliminated
Number of items scanned at a time only one item at a time multiple items can be scanned in one second
Modification of encoded data no modification is possible read/write tags can be modified
Data protection data connected to the bar code can be encrypted, but the actual bar code cannot be protected data connected can be encrypted, and the actual tag and transfer of data can be encrypted
Cost of tags cheaper than RFID tags can cost $0.15 to $5.00
Impact of environmental variables not affected by many environmental variables, so long as they do not affect the line of sight metal, liquid, snow, and humidity can affect performance

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