RFID-Based Library Systems (Archived Report)

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Archived Report
RFID-Based Library Systems

by Jerri L. Ledford

Docid: 00011000

Publication Date: 1701

Report Type: TUTORIAL


RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, is a subset of the larger host of Automated Identification, or Auto ID, technologies. Auto ID assists machines in the identification and tracking of objects, which is particularly useful for organization such as libraries that maintain large collections. With the price of RFID systems decreasing and the growth of applications associated with tracking RFID devices as well as the use of data obtained from those devices, there is a steady rate of growth in adoption of this technology. This report outlines the current state of RFID-based library systems and discusses RFID adoption in libraries for the near future.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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In library systems, Auto ID technologies such as EM (Electro-Mechanical) and RF (Radio Frequency) devices have been in
place for decades for the sole purpose of theft detection of books and other
circulation materials.

Faulkner Reports
Library Automation Software Overview

RFID technology enables libraries to upgrade and replace legacy EM and RF systems with
additional functionality that combine security with more efficient tracking of
materials throughout the library, including easier and faster check-out and
check-in, inventorying, and materials handling.

Costs of deployment and maintenance are still a challenge, however, as most all libraries are public or
non-profit entities. Depending on the size of a library’s collection, the cost
of RFID implementation can range from $40,000 USD for small collections and
exceed $300,000 USD for medium to large collections, excluding yearly
maintenance. However, the price for RFID equipment is falling and the length of
time that equipment can remain is use is increasing. A few years ago, the
average cost of an RFID tag was $0.85 to $1.60 per tag. Today, the mass
production of RFID tags and labels has reduced to cost to a range of about
$0.15 to $0.25 per tag, depending on the manufacturer, the quality of the tag,
and the number of tags purchased. Tag readers cost about the same as EM and RF
readers – approximately $4,000 to $8,000 each – and RFID tags (if maintained
properly) can remain in circulation for 15 years or 100,000 transactions or
even longer. Furthermore, the argument that RFID systems are financially
prohibitive has been repeatedly proven to be ineffective through the successful
implementation of RFID classification and tracking systems in today’s

The answer to the cost challenges
will be for libraries to begin thinking "outside the box" of legacy
Auto ID systems technology with thorough cost/benefit analysis. Labor reduction
costs for inventorying, circulation operations (patron check-in and
check-out), and reduced re-shelving time will assist libraries with the
cost justification of implementing RFID technology. The addition of volunteer
activity by friends of the library as well as patrons can further reduce the
cost and time investment spent during an implementation. The availability of
grants to help offset the initial implementation costs of an RFID system is
also a consideration that will help to reduce the entrance threshold for RFID


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RFID is a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to Auto ID people or objects. Different from legacy Auto ID technologies such as bar coding that requires line-of-sight between a reader and a tag, RFID is a non-line-of-sight technology that relies, instead, on the proximity of an ID tag to a reader.

A typical RFID system is
composed of a tag (a microchip/antenna transponder with embedded data), a
reader that can pick up the content of a tag within its frequency and proximity
range, and a staff workstation or server where data for the tags is entered,
altered, and stored. The reader converts the radio waves reflected back from
the tag into digital information that can then be passed on to computers for
processing. RFID tags and readers must be tuned to the same frequency to
communicate. RFID systems use many different frequencies, but the recommended
frequency for library use is considered high frequency – 13.56 MHz.

As an emerging alternative to
legacy Auto ID systems, RFID has gained wide acceptance in the manufacturing
and retail industries. Thousands of companies around the world use RFID today
to improve internal efficiencies with applications such as tracking goods in
the supply chain, reusable containers, high value tools and other assets, and
parts moving through a manufacturing production line. Furthermore, wider availability
and adoption of Big Data and data analysis tools increases the value and return
on investment of RFID systems in these industries and has the potential to do
the same for library systems.

RFID Library

Similar to applications for
retail and manufacturing, RFID applications for libraries share many of the
same components and functionality. Tags and readers exist in both applications
with proximity between the tag and reader as the trigger for processing as
opposed to line-of-sight. Tracking of materials for movement and inventory
purposes are key advantages that RFID brings to both environments as well as cost
savings in manpower and overhead due to theft.

The differentiation of RFID in
library systems versus retail and manufacturing is in the area of circulation
operations. Circulations operations, which consist of charge and discharge
(check-in, check-out) processing and material location, are the single highest
operational cost for a library. RFID technology can reduce the time and
manpower required to perform these tasks by shifting the charge/discharge and
location functions to library patrons. Imbedding RFID tags into patron Smart
Cards and library materials will allow patrons to make their selections and
merely walk between readers at the library exit where patron information and
materials being charged (checked-out) are automatically processed. Similarly,
as materials are being discharged (checked-in) RFID tags will discharge the
materials from a patron’s account as they pass through readers in the book

In addition to the
charge/discharge functions of circulation operations, materials that are misplaced on shelves or are out of order can be quickly returned to circulation via RFID tags and readers. Depending on the complexity and number of readers deployed throughout a library, materials once considered lost or stolen can be tracked in real time or located via handheld readers, decreasing material replacement costs and increasing patron satisfaction.

Another benefit of RFID
technologies for libraries is the collection of data that pertains to lending
frequency and patron preferences. While the use of this data is still a
relatively new strategy in library systems, it has the potential to improve
collections, decrease acquisition costs, and increase patron satisfaction.

Advantages of RFID
for Libraries

While not universally popular
with librarians or administrators, RFID has won over many converts due to some
obvious advantages.

most significant savings of RFID library systems are attributable to the fact
that information can be read from RFID tags much faster than from barcodes or
manual charge/discharge systems. Multiple items with RFID tags can be read
almost simultaneously and, when used as a concurrent replacement for legacy EM
theft systems, can provide additional time and cost savings for materials such
as audio and video.

Patron Self-Service
Charging and Discharging.
used in conjunction with RFID Smart Card technology, staffing requirements for
charging and discharging materials through the library can be reduced to the
point of elimination. Patrons who choose to use this functionality may merely
collect the materials they wish to charge to their library accounts and pass
through RFID readers located at library exists. RFID tags located in the
library material and patron Smart Card will be processed by the
charge/discharge application eliminating the need for staff intervention. Current
estimates, based on statistics gathered from libraries that have installed RFID
systems is that self-service accounts for between 30 and 90 percent of charging
and discharging activities within the library.

Returning (discharging)
materials does not require the presence of a patron’s Smart Card. Since the
material’s tag information is unique, tags passing through drop box readers can
process the return and discharge the account without the tag on the patron’s
Smart Card. This will eliminate the need for the patron to be present when
materials are returned, giving them the convenience of having friends or family
return materials for them.

Reliability. Vendors of library RFID systems, such as
3M, Bibliotheca, and Libramation, claim almost 100
percent detection rate of RFID tags by readers. This is important because RFID
technology susceptibility to tag collision (where tag readers are confused by
tags reflecting multiple signals at the same time) and reader collision (where
one reader’s signal interferes with another in areas that have signal overlap)
can severely impact a system’s usefulness. However, according to the American
Library Association (ALA), anecdotal evidence suggests that tag collision
occurs with media (audio and visual) but not books whenever a reader is within
24 inches of the tags. The ALA further states that there appears to be no statistical data to support the
anecdotal claims.

Concerns over tag life have also been addressed by RFID vendors. Requiring no physical contact as with barcodes,
RFID tag vendors are claiming that the current technology allows for a minimum
of 100,000 transactions (charge/discharge/theft detection, etc.) before a tag
would need replacing. The current average estimate is about 15 years. Given
this level of reliability, an RFID tag can outlive the useful circulation
life-cycle of even the most popular library materials.

Challenges of RFID for Libraries

As with any technology there are challenges for libraries to overcome during a switch to RFID technology, not
the least of which is cost.

Cost. The biggest impediment to the deployment
of RFID in library systems has been cost. Since 2004, new technologies such as WiFi and PCMCIA Flash Cards have significantly reduced
deployment costs and, in fact, tag prices have dropped by more than 50 percent
between mid-2009 and mid-2014 to a range of $0.15 to $0.25 each, with the price
depending on the amount of memory and the quantity purchased. This is good news
as most if not all library systems are under the control of public and/or
non-profit entities with the allocation of funds for the purchase and
deployment of a library RFID system constrained. While the cost of RFID readers
is significantly lower than EM and RF sensors and tag prices continue to
decline, costs of a server and manual conversion from a legacy system to RFID
still create challenges for even the most prosperous of libraries.

According to the Public Library
Association, the cost of deployment even for a small library with 40,000 items
can exceed $40,000 with patron self-charging/discharging added as an option.
Table 1 is an example of a budget for a library with 40,000 items.

Table 1. Sample Budget for 40,000 Volume Library



40,000 tags @.$0.24 US
(tag price may vary between $0.07 and $0.24) 


1 programmer/converter
rental (3 weeks) 


2 staff stations @


2 exit sensors @


1 wireless portable


1 patron self-charging


2 book drop units 


1 server


222 hours of labor @


Carpentry and


Total Budget


Source: Public Library Association 2004

For medium to large libraries
the cost of an RFID system deployment can approach $250,000 to $500,000. This
makes the justification for RFID deployment difficult at best given the current
state of the RFID market. As RFID technology gains acceptance in the private
sector, however, costs should begin to fall.

Bulk costs for passive tags
have declined from over $1.00 US per device 10 years ago, to between $0.07
and $0.25 per device today, depending on size, data storage, and bulk
order requirements. Although progress has been made in lowering the cost of
RFID deployment, it is generally an accepted fact that prices for RFID tags
with more memory and range need to be below $0.10 per device before a
deployment en masse by private industry. As the
single most significant line item for library RFID systems is tags, there will
be a downward trend towards the overall cost of deployment for RFID systems.

Prices for readers are
declining as well, with prices approaching the $150.00 per device range.
Compact Flash Cards such as the Syscan RFID Reader
are allowing libraries to deploy in place or low cost assists saving
thousands over the original dedicated units. Such readers plug into standard CF
slots or PCMCIA (via adapter) slots of handhelds, organizers, tablets, laptops
or PCs without additional hardware.

For basic library applications,
the need for dedicated reader hardware is moot as devices on the portable scale
of PDAs can be adapted to perform this function. In more complex systems, as
objects may need to be tracked over longer distances requiring networked reader
systems, technologies such as WiFi can expand the
reach of traditional RFID networked systems at a minimal cost.

System Compromises. Not unlike security and tracking
technologies within the retail and manufacturing market, there is always a
vulnerability from those who try to compromise the system. As good and advanced
as any technology may be, there will always be elements of society that wish to
circumvent the system. RFID technology is no different.

Tags are the most venerable
component of an RFID system. Locating and removing the tag will take away the
reader’s ability to track and detect materials exiting the facility. For this,
the best defense is to conceal tags in inconspicuous locations of the material.
As theft is often a spontaneous action, making the location of a tag as
difficult as possible can be a strong deterrent.

Lack of Standards. One of the most difficult hurdles for
adoption of RFID systems is the lack of standardization required for both the
RFID tags and the tag reading systems. A lack of interoperability makes it
risky for some libraries to commit to implementing a new system because the
RFID tags can be system specific. But standardization is beginning to become a
focus of some of the vendors in the marketplace. For example, the International
Standards Organization (ISO) has been working to establish RFID

Several years ago, technology
standards that address the communication between the tags and the readers were
established (SIP2 – Standard Interchange Protocol) but those standards do not
address RFID tags or equipment. Since then, some standards have been developed
to address the hardware (ISO 15693, which defines the physical characteristics
of the RFID chips, and ISO 18000-3 which is designed to standardize 13.56 MHz
RFID tags). Additionally, Z39.83-2002 is a protocol that outlines
interoperability between RFID tags from different vendors. The goal of this
protocol is to make tags operable with any reader.  While standards are
advancing, they are still not currently sophisticated enough to ensure interoperability
between all technologies.

Privacy Issues. With all of the benefits to be gained
from RFID technology, there are security concerns related to protecting the
privacy of consumers and individuals. Civil liberty and other advocacy groups
are raising concerns to government agencies as to the threats to privacy posed
by the development and installation of tags in commonplace items.

In the retail industry,
concerns over an RFID system’s ability to read the contents of a person’s
shopping bag or wallet by simply placing an RFID reader in the vicinity of high
pedestrian traffic areas have caught the attention of legislatures as
well. The RFID industry is aware of consumer privacy concerns and has been
pledging to keep their distance with respect to gaining access to information
beyond the RFID system’s stated application, but these assurances do not take
into account the ability of using RFID by those whose intent is of a nefarious

There is little to no
confidence, however, that the potential for abuse of RFID technology cannot be
allayed without regulatory intervention. Just as hackers have the ability to
breach the codicils of ethical behavior on the Internet, the opportunity is
present to do likewise with RFID.

Current View

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The Public Library Association
(PLA) is a division of the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and
largest library association in the world. PLA’s core purpose is to strengthen
public libraries and their contribution to the communities they serve.
According to the PLA, by mid-2007, an estimated 600 libraries with as many as
850 facilities were using RFID systems. The ALA
states that the number nearly tripled to almost 1,500 libraries and 2,500
facilities by mid-2009. In the time since, the number of implementations is
estimated to be more than 3,000 libraries at the end of 2012, and a quick
Internet search of RFID news regularly turns up new library RFID
implementations with an increasing number of those implementations being in
academic libraries and special collections.

RFID technology for library
systems is gaining momentum in acceptance as a wholesale replacement to legacy
EM/RF security systems. Reductions in the cost of RFID deployment have allowed
many small and independent libraries to systematically replace legacy security
systems in advance of any capital improvement program.

For libraries that have RFID
systems installed, a marked improvement in overall efficiency is being
discovered with associated gains in circulation activities. One such library,
the Farmington Community Library in Michigan,
has seen an overall gain in circulation activities from 1 million to 1.5
million since installing a Checkpoint Intelligent Library System (ILS) based on
RFID technology. In addition to the increases in circulation, the library has
been able to decrease staff time allocated for circulation operations by 30
percent. According to Farmington Community Library’s director, the
Intelligent Library System has clearly helped the library meet the challenges
related to increased circulation without increasing staff.

deployment of the Checkpoint ILS was in part the result of a voter approved
capital improvement project. This is further evidence that RFID library
technology is still a niche product for library systems that are planning for
and funding major renovation or capital improvement projects.

Efficiency gains from RFID library
systems will still be a tough sell for libraries operating on tight budgets.
Significant price reduction – especially in the area of cost per tag, the
costliest component of RFID deployment – will be necessary for RFID to go from
a niche to a mainstream application. 


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The proliferation of RFID
technology for library systems will more than likely depend on the state of
RFID technology as a whole. Currently, the cost of RFID equipment has dropped
to a level that many libraries can now afford to begin the implementation
process for RFID systems. Additionally, libraries in the US
can now look to libraries in other countries (such as the UK)
as well as to bookstore chains to see how successful RFID tagging systems are.
These factors, along with improving standards, should increase the adoption of
RFID technology in libraries across the US
through 2016.

Additionally, the acquisition
of Bibliotheca by 3M could affect the adoption of RFID technologies going
forward. The impact will largely be felt in the UK
first, but will likely reverberate to US markets over time. As the largest
provider of RFID technologies, Bibliotheca provided a large percentage of the
RFID technology that is currently in use. It is unclear at this time how 3M
will change or improve that technology and its distribution.

It does seem, however, that
library systems planning to deploy RFID in the next several years will be the
beneficiaries of further cost reductions. Budget projections based on current
prices for tags and readers will need revisiting as the proliferation of RFID
in both the private and public world continues. Furthermore, as the demand for
library RFID technology increases, so should the competition among current
vendors as well as new market entrants. This should allow libraries to
accelerate plans for deployment without the need of seeking funds from outside


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As RFID technology becomes more
advanced and inexpensive, libraries will be faced with a conundrum of choices.

  • Will the
    benefits of deploying RFID technology outweigh the costs?
  • Will privacy
    issues result in liability litigation?
  • Where should
    RFID be deployed to gain the maximum benefit of the technology –
    everywhere or strategically?
  • Is the time
    for deployment now or should the enterprise customer wait for costs to
    come down and functionality to improve?

Within the library market
segment, the overriding choice will ultimately come down to the cost versus the
benefit of RFID as it does with any technology deployment. RFID is a proven
commodity with respect to efficiency gains in processing and manpower
distribution. Within the private sector the justifications are more relevant as
Returns on Investment (ROI) generally span from fiscal year to fiscal year. In
the public sector, however, justifications for investments in technology may in
many cases be projected two and three years out. This is where monitoring the
RFID market becomes crucial.

For an en
masse deployment of RFID technology in the public library systems of America to
occur, prices will need to decline significantly from current levels. If not,
library RFID systems will continue to be a niche market for vendors and
consumers with little movement in the rate of deployment or cost.

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About the Author

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Jerri L. Ledford is a leading business technology
trainer and author. She has written 18 books, including The SEO Bible, and has
worked with major corporations to develop both in-house and customer-facing
technology training. In addition, Ms. Ledford leads training online and in a
corporate setting, as well as leading workshops and speaking publicly about
technology issues.

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