New RFID Standard Raises Prospects for Interoperability

By Patrick Hogan |

Below is an excerpt from Lori Bowen Ayre's Library Technology Report RFID in Libraries: A Step toward Interoperability (Vol. 48; No. 5). Subscribers can access Library Technology Reports on Metapress. The Introduction, from which this excerpt is taken, is available for free download. Purchase single copies in the ALA store.

In March 2012, NISO adopted RFID in Libraries (RP-6-2012) establishing ISO 28560-2 as the US Data Profile (see NISO report). The final adoption of a US Data Profile is one big step toward interoperability between libraries and between vendors.

RFID (radio frequency identification) tags have been used in libraries since 1999, when the National Library of Singapore installed the first system. RFID tags, like barcodes, are used to uniquely identify library material. A barcode tag has the barcode number imprinted on the tag, and the barcode scanner reads that number using optical technology. With RFID, much more information can be stored on the tag, and the tag data is read via radio technology instead of optical technology. Whereas barcode scanners require line of sight to operate, RFID readers just need to be able to detect the tag. This means the reader needs to be within 18 to 20 inches of the tag, but the tag need not be visible (e.g., it can be inside the book).

Today, RFID spending exceeds $5.85 billion worldwide, and the technology is used in virtually every industry. However, RFID adoption in libraries has not seen this type of explosion. NXP, manufacturer of the integrated circuits that are part of nearly every library RFID tag, reports that some 3,000 libraries worldwide have implemented RFID. So, while libraries were among the first to get involved with RFID, libraries haven’t gone very far with it since 2003.

In fact, most of the library RFID components (tags, readers, software) are essentially the same today as they were in 2003. There have been some improvements in the quality of the products offered, but there isn’t much difference when it comes to functionality. The vendors providing RFID solutions are also largely the same, although some of the smaller players have disappeared and some have merged.

Between 2003 and today, digital technology has changed the nature of the library collection everywhere. Virtually every library has increased the size of its electronic resources while the size of physical collections has remained flat. RFID is a technology applicable only to physical books, CDs, and DVDs. Many libraries are reluctant to make a big investment in an expensive technology that is potentially only relevant to their physical collections.

Another reason libraries have been reluctant to embrace RFID is the lack of standards. With RFID, standards are a critical issue. The lack of standards has inhibited the adoption of RFID technology. Standards act as a warranty on the library’s investment in RFID. Without standards, RFID is a more risky investment. Standards eliminate vendor lock-in and allow for interoperability across different vendors’ solutions. With vendor interoperability, libraries can buy their RFID components from any vendor with the expectation that everything will work together.

Standards also lead to library and ILS interoperability. With library interoperability, libraries can read each other’s RFID tags, making resource sharing and interlibrary loan (ILL) transactions more secure and simpler. ILS interoperability will allow libraries to switch from one ILS to another without having to worry that their RFID components will stop working. To achieve vendor, library, and ILS interoperability, many standards have to fall into place. Some are there, but we still need more. (See the full Introduction for an overview of the relevant standards.)

With the US Data Profile finalized, libraries are at a crossroads. Now is the time to push vendors to adhere to the new US Data Profile to ensure vendor and library interoperability. Widespread adoption of the US Data Profile is important for libraries. It is a big step closer to interoperability.

It is also time to think creatively about what else libraries can do with RFID tags. This will require new protocols for communicating with the ILS and development of new functions. Partnering with libraries in the United Kingdom may be the quickest way to make progress in this area.

My hope is that readers of RFID in Libraries: A Step Toward Interoperability will come to understand how library RFID fits into the larger worldwide RFID and library context and—for libraries opting to use RFID—understand what needs to be done to exploit it so that it functions as the new technology it is and less like the old technology it has thus far replaced.