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Brookline Library RFID

I'm surfacing from a busy week to talk about an issue that I'll be voting on next week as a member of Brookline Town Meeting. As it so happens, it's an issue I support as a member of the Board of Library Trustees.

This year, the Trustees would like to begin implementing a radio frequency identification system, otherwise known as RFID, to make it easier for library patrons to check materials in and out of the library. Although the Trustees and the Board of Selectmen support the RFID program, the town's Advisory Committee did not, so those of us on the Board of Trustees have been making our case to the members of Town Meeting.

We're also making our case to the citizens of the town. In today's Brookline TAB, we published an op-ed piece, RFID: The right tool for the job. If you're a citizen of the town, we hope you will read the piece, agree with us that RFID is important, and then contact your 15 Town Meeting Members and ask them to support the RFID in next Tuesday's vote. You can find a precinct-by-precinct listing of your representatives, along with contact information, at the Brookline TMM Precinct Listing.

A few relevant facts:

The Trustees are asking for $465,000 to be appropriated to implement a radio frequency identification system for checking library materials in and out.

The funds we're requesting are funds that the town has set aside specifically for one-time capital expenditures. Bring RFID technology to Brookline this year has actually been part of our capital improvement plan for about five years now; by sheer chance, the year we were planning to request the funds coincided with the override. These funds cannot be used for anything other than capital expenditures; it's not as if we could have used them to stave off the need for an override vote. But spending this money now may help us save money in the long run.

Library circulation has doubled in the last 14 years, and library staff has decreased by four employees in that same time. Without implementing RFID, we believe that a continued rise in circulation will force us to add staff or reduce services.

The Cambridge and Wellesley libraries, which are also both part of the Minuteman network, will have full funding to move forward with RFID this year. Sudbury also is planning to begin implementation this year. With Brookline added, we will have more influence on how the new technology is adopted.

Again, if you live in Brookline, I hope you'll support the RFID vote.


RFID does still pose some personal security issues as third party readers can be used to determine what you are reading.

That bothers some folks.

That might be some of the resistance.

You may need to speak to that.

/my 2 cents
Actually, this is something we've been thinking about. All of the Trustees are concerned about patron privacy. Our library director was asked by a TMM about the privacy issue, and he made the following points.

First of all, the RFID tags that we'll be using can only be read from a distance of 18 inches or less. So it's not feasible to build a network that can track a tag as it moves throughout the town.

Furthermore, we will not be using RFID to store any information about the library patrons. The only thing stored on the tag will be a bar code number that would allow staff to determine the title of the book or item. There is no way that a person walking past you on a town street could read the tag of a book in your backpack and then determine what you're reading.

We also hope RFID will improve privacy. Our library director gave me the hypothetical example of a patron with a sensitive personal problem who has to get books on the problem at the library. At the moment, that patron would have to hand the books to a library staff person to check out, so at least one other human being would learn what that patron is reading. With RFID, the patron can check the book out on his or her own and never have to be face to face with a staff person.

I hope this addresses your concerns and that we can count on your vote after you move to Brookline this weekend. :-)

This is the speech someone has to give.
Agreed. Stop and Shop has self-checkout lanes based on the idea that the average customer can scan the barcodes themselves.
Actually, the times I've tried to use the self-checkout machine at Coolidge, it hasn't worked very well. I've always ended up going to the circulation desk instead.
Tinfoil Paranoid in me wishes to point out that the 18 inch range depends on the sensitivity of the instrument doing the measurement. I mean, it's not like radio waves stop working suddenly once they pass a magical 18 inch barrier. There's only an inverse square law working in your favor.

And while the scientist in me thinks that this probably means that the most sophisticated instruments can maybe give you three feet, and with a device size that's impractical to carry around, the paranoid part of me wonders if the government or some megacorporation doesn't have super-powered RFID trackers at their disposal.
Again, if there were such a powerful scanner in existence, all the scanner would be able to get out of the RFID chip would be a code that has no information about the book itself. The only way to find out what book corresponds to that code would be to hack into the library's computer system. And if someone can do that, they would be able to get the list of books you've checked out regardless of whether or not they had scanned your book for its code.
Hmm. I wonder how many staff you could hire for $465,000. I bet that would drastically improve the speed of things. OR at least keep up with demand. Heck, you're down 4 employees from where you were? You can hire me for a quarter of $465k!
In order to do the comparison properly, you'd have to consider how long it would take the $465K worth of RFID equipment to fully depreciate, and then ask how many staff you could hire for that same number of years for $465K of present value.
Let's see. We could probably hire anywhere from 10-15 new staff members for that amount of money.

For one full year. Then we'd have to fire them all once the money is gone.

You've missed a point I made above. The money is earmarked for capital expenditures, and has been for some time. It cannot be used for any other expense, such as salaries for staff. Basically, if the money isn't used for the RFID program, the library doesn't get it at all.
No, I do understand that, but part of my point there is that the money is earmarked for the wrong purposes. I know there isn't necessarily anything the library can do about that, but rather than addressing the real problem, they may be spending money just to spend money. How does the Library IT department feel about having to support self-checkout machines? These things can, and will, break, which may bring you back to the staffing problems.

Maybe the capital expense should be to build a bigger circulation desk. You know, where you can put the staff that you need to hire. :D
Um, I've actually been studying the RFID question for about three or four years now, so I think I'm aware of the issues of what RFID will solve and what it won't solve. An average checkout may take you forty-five seconds, but it might take someone else more or less time. And if you add up all those average checkouts and eliminate them, you leave more time for staff to deal with all the other issues you've listed.
Here's a plausible real time-saver. With an 18" range, you should be able to take a scanner, walk down a row of books, and have it beep at you when one is out of place. That would make it practical to do regular sweeps and reshelve the orphans.

Yes, Ideally you wouldn't have books that are mis-shelved, but in reality patrons put things back in the wrong place, and mistakes happen. This could be a time efficient way of solving the problem, and making the service better for everyone.
This is something that the library director had pointed out to the Trustees when explaining the benefits of the program. As you say, it will be a time-saver.
We use RFID at our library (in Seattle) and I love it.
Will the RFIDs be deactivated at checkout?

Will the library switch to an RFID-based library card as well, or will they now need to purchase two sets of readers- lasers for the cards and an RFID reader for the books?
I'm not sure what you mean by deactivated at checkout.

The library cards will not be RFID based, only the tagging of materials.
How will non-RFID cards work with a self-checkout system? How do they work currently? Barcode or magstripe?

Edited at 2008-05-22 08:02 pm (UTC)
All the library cards will remain barcoded, at least for the foreseeable future. We have no plans to put RFID chips on the library cards.

So with a self-checkout machine, patrons will scan in their barcode, then run their five books over the machine, and it will spit out a checkout slip for those five books.
So, you'll have to have a bar-code scanner at the self checkout *anyway*. Why is it you expect they'll be able to scan their card, but not their books?
We had a self-serve machine once that scanned barcodes of each book, but patrons didn't like to use it because they had to open each book and find the barcode. With the many different libraries that are part of Minuteman, there's no consistency on where the barcodes are placed.

It will probably be more popular when all they have to do is scan their library card's barcode and then run all five books at once through the machine.

According to the statistics we got from other libraries that use RFID, in the first year of implementing the system, self-checkouts increased. I think I read that one library system now finds self-checkout accounting for over 60% of their circulation, but don't quote me on that.

December 2016

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