Imagine a library system that knows where every book is and allows visitors to return and issue books automatically. That dream is slowly becoming a reality as libraries adopt the use of tiny Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags for tracking books and audiovisual items.
Tiny RFID tags can store detailed information about an item, which is then sent via radio waves to a reading device - either a handheld or fixed unit. The technology is used for tracking the movement of goods in the retail industry, but it is making inroads in other areas, such as library management systems.
The Vatican Library in Rome is the latest, and one of the most high profile, of scores of libraries worldwide that are adopting RFID tagging of books and other items. During the past year, the library has tagged 50,000 of the 120,000 volumes in its public reading rooms. It plans to tag 2m of the Vatican's 40m piece collection over the next few years.
The main benefit is that books can be checked quickly using a handheld reader, reducing stocktaking time from weeks to half a day. Each book also retains details of its usage, which can be read in an instant. The tag can be used as a security device, triggering alarms if a book is removed without being issued. With automated check-ins, it can allow 24-hour returns, like a video shop.
Because most libraries have library management IT systems, the data for the tags can be generated from the library's database. The data can include a number of fields such as the book's unique identifier, loan record and bar code number.
The tag, costing around 45p, is manually stuck into the book's inner spine or close to the spine in the inside cover, sometimes using special non-damaging glue. The library then uses handheld readers to perform stocktakes, while fixed readers at issuing desks scan books entering or leaving the library. A stack of books can be scanned in seconds, significantly reducing the time and staff needed to manage loans. In some libraries, this activity has become partly self-service.
According to The RFID Knowledgebase, a research service, US libraries lead the world in RFID use, with the UK and Japan equal second. It estimates that 35m library items have been tagged worldwide.
In the UK, 18 libraries are usingthe technology, either in pilot projects or with complete systems. The latest - and possibly the largest to go live - is the Hendon Campus Library at Middlesex University. This new library has selected a pounds 200,000 system from Switzerland-based Biblioteca, which has been installed by its UK distributor D-Link in association with Dynix, the university's library management system supplier. D-Link has also installed similar systems at Nottingham Trent University's library, Colchester public library, the Barbican library in London and Norwich Millennium library.
So far, 250,000 of HCL's 300,000 books have been tagged in a three-week period, despite the library thinking it might take two months. Marvin Crisp, the managing director of D-Link, says there are immediate security benefits: "If someone walks out of the library with a book, it is automatically scanned, so they instantly know which book it was. That was never possible before." It is also possible to do a stocktake using a handheld reader while walking slowly past each shelf: there is no need to open a single book.
Crisp believes that RFID systems are only scratching the surface of their potential. "It is possible to make returns fully automated using a device that sorts returned books for you. It is also possible to have 'intelligent shelving' by putting antennas throughout the library so books can be constantly monitored. This means that if a book is misplaced, its location will automatically be noted; therefore it can be easily found."
Because the data on borrowing can be kept on the tag, it is technically possible to walk around the library to weed out items not regularly used: books that have not been taken out for more than a year, for example.
But with concerns about cost, it won't be adopted overnight. Crisp says that most of the library systems installed have been with new libraries or those involved in new extensions. "That way, it is possible to put the cost of RFID into the building budget," he adds.
At the British Library in London, cost is a key concern: "We are looking at the technology with a view to running a pilot next year," says Dawn Olney, head of collection and storage, "but with a collection of 150m items, we are concerned about cost. We are trying to identify which items to tag in a trial project. If lots of libraries opt for RFID, then prices will come down, making it more feasible."
The library's inventory includes books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, magazines, prints and drawings, scores, patents and stamps.
Fortunately, the British Library is in a position to use RFID as a leapfrog technology because, unlike most public libraries, it does not barcode its books. It uses a simple shelf marking system, and could upgrade without going via barcodes.
The next "flagship" library system will be Brighton's new pounds 14m city centre Jubilee library, which will hold 110,000 books and 16,000 audiovisual items. The system, which is being installed by Manchester-based specialists Intellident, will go live when the library opens in March. Intellident has 15 RFID library installations in the south of England, and recently secured an agreement to RFID-enable Essex's public libraries.
Sally McMahon, head of libraries at Brighton & Hove City Council, says: "RFID technology will transform the way we deliver public library services. The remit of a library is much wider nowadays, and this will free staff to play a more supporting role running classes and helping people. But there will always be staff present."
The Vatican Library is the latest to adopt RFID tagging Massimo Listri.