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Can RFID get it together to jump the chasm?

171587228_f78f978bd8_o_d After what seems an age of working from home and in the office over the summer, I’m out on the road again.  This post is coming from the departure lounge of the airport serving the wonderful city of Glasgow.  I’m on my way back from speaking at a one day conference – Introducing RFID – Are you on the right wavelength? – jointly organised by JISC and the Scottish Library & Information Council.

RFID that wonderful technology that makes self-service so much more an engaging and simple process for library users,  has been around for many years.  Yet for many libraries it is still new technology to be concerned about, not least because of the substantial financial and time investment required to deploy it.  It is telling of where we are with the general take up of this technology that almost without exception every speaker [including yours truly] felt the need to provide the audience with their description of what RFID is and the potential future benefits that may come from adopting it.

The best simple description of what RFID is today came from JISC’s Gaynor Backhouse – RFID is barcodes on steroids.  A way of attaching a machine readable identity to a physical item, that is easier to handle than a barcode and also can act as an overt security device.  Being able to read multiple items, without the need for contact or direct line of sight, has revolutionised the self-issue & return processes; finally realising the benefits for library staff and customers that were banded about many years ago when self-issue was first promoted.  Many of the speakers also emphasised the extra benefits for staff, undertaking mind-numbing labour intensive tasks such as stock taking/weeding/finding/checking, with the introduction of RFID reading wands and smart shelving.

There was much agreement as to these benefits, which are available to all libraries.  There were a few mutterings about interoperability issues between the offerings from different RFID system suppliers, but I get the impression that these concerns are rapidly fading.

Where there was far less clarity and agreement was the future of RFID beyond being just a better barcode.  An RFID chip is not only capable of storing far more data than just an identifier, but also it has the capability for that data to be changed and added to. 

As a techie at heart, the prospect of having the equivalent of a radio accessed memory stick stuck to every book cover, gets my creative juices running: the item’s loan history could follow it around; the book could arrive from the publisher with it’s catalogue record on board; it could attract the attention of an RFID enabled phone to tell it’s owner that is overdue and needs taking back to the library – to mention just a few of the more sensible ones.

There is a major blockage to the adoption of what could be described as these RFID 2.0 visions.  Nobody can agree on how to store the data on the RFID chips – as of today there is no standard for this.  In the standards less vacuum each supplier is doing their own incompatible thing.  That is not to say that there are no standards for RFID.  As independent RFID consultant Mick Fortune testified, there are more standards in this area than is wise to display on a single PowerPoint slide, but none of them address the issue of how to store this extended book/library data.

Adoption Curve For a technology to become generally adopted, crossing that chasm between the early adopters to the take up by the early majority of users, there needs to be a standardised market in operation, reducing costs and risks.  Would the CD have been widely adopted if each record label, or equipment manufacturer, used their own proprietary encoding format?

Mick Fortune went on to describe some light on the horizon in the form of a proposed standard – ISO 28560-1  – a standard which codifies 25 data elements.  The adoption of this would be a major step forward.  Unfortunately, as always it seems in the world of standards, ISO 28560-1 is not the whole story.  There are also two competing, and apparently mutually exclusive, standards ISO 28560-2 & ISO 28560-3 which describe how these elements would be encoded on a chip –  that’s the trouble with standards, there are so many to choose from!.

If these standards are agreed, ratified and adopted by the industry I believe we will have removed a substantial barrier to the wider use of RFID for things beyond barcode replacement. The next problem will be to gain some agreement as to what those uses might be.   I may be short sighted but from my current point of view RFID 2.0 (I know I’m going to regret calling it that) looks like a great solution searching for a problem to solve.

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