Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID, for short) is a technology used for tracking and identification of objects in many areas of commerce, shipping, manufacturing, and, beginning in the late 1990's, in the circulation, inventory and security processes of libraries.
RFID is similar to barcode technology in that it employs coded labels to communicate information about a specific item (a library book or DVD, for instance) to a central server. However, since RFID uses radio frequencies to communicate with items' attendant labels rather than scanning barcodes with a laser, the RFID reader does not require a direct line of sight to the label to read it, can read multiple items at once, and can read through physical tissue such as a book cover or DVD case.
Advantages of RFID in Library Settings
RFID technology's ability to read ID tags regardless of position or orientation, as well as detect signals through physical materials, is particularly advantageous for library circulation processes. Since several items can be read at once, checkout procedures can be accomplished much more rapidly than with barcode technology, which requires that each item be handled individually. For these same reasons, patrons can accomplish self-checkout much more efficiently, as well.
Implementation of RFID in libraries generally leads to greatly-reduced queues at the checkout counter, enhanced customer service, and less repetitive strain injuries for library staff . A study commissioned by the San Francisco Public Library anticipated a substantial reduction in risky, repetitive motions associated with circulation such as lifting, reaching and grasping as a result of its RFID implementation .
RFID can be equally advantageous for checkin processes. In addition to being able to check in multiple items simultaneously, RFID readers can be affixed to book return slots, effectively checking in items as they pass through the slot. RFID can further streamline checkin when used in conjunction with an automated materials handling (AMH) system. A conveyor carries items past an RFID reader, which checks them in and then sorts them by category into bins or onto carts, eliminating the need for staff to handle items until the fine-sorting step of the process.
The time saving potential of an RFID implementation can be substantial; an Australian library reported an 80% reduction in time spent on circulation procedures by staff after RFID was implemented .
RFID also has had a significant impact on inventory processes in libraries. With a fully-tagged collection, inventory can be taken with a portable, hand-held wand which is passed alongside the books on the shelves; the reader picks up the individual signals from each item's tag, without needing to remove or even tip the books outward from the shelves. As a result, says Karen Coyle, with RFID "not only does the cost of doing an inventory in the library go down, the odds of actually completing regular inventories goes up" . RFID has enabled the library at California State University, Long Beach to inventory 5,000 books per hour, and the Vatican Library in Rome estimates the ability to inventory 120,000 tagged items in its collection in half a day, as opposed to the full month it took to do so before implementing RFID .
Inventory with RFID has also proven to be extremely useful and cost-effective in terms of locating lost or misshelved items. The library at Cal State-Long Beach reported finding 300 items that had been recorded as lost or missing upon its first RFID-enabled inventory. The library at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas found 500 such items after tagging its 600,000-plus collection, and estimated saving $40,000 in potential replacement costs as a result .
Item security is another area in which RFID technology can benefit a library. RFID tags can be enabled with a theft-detection bit that is deactivated upon proper checkout, allowing the materials to which they have been affixed to pass freely through an RFID-powered security gate. As the items pass an RFID reader upon being checked back in, the security bits are reactivated.
1. Erwin, Emmit and Christian Kern. 2005. Radio frequency identification in libraries. Australaisian Public Libraries and Information Services 18(1) (March): 20-28.
2. Smart, Laura J. 2004. Making sense of RFID. Library Journal NetConnect 129 (Fall): 4-14.
3. Carp, Douglas, Donald Leslie and James Lichtenberg. 2004. Tiny trackers: use of RFID by libraries and booksellers. Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom 53(5): 169, 206-215.
4. Coyle, Karen. 2005. Management of RFID in libraries. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 31(5): 486-489.