Radio-frequency identification has revolutionized the way that libraries track and secure books. Around the turn of the century, this technology began to replace older and more flawed technology. It was only recently standardized for use in libraries across the United States, which means this is just the beginning of its evolution.
Parts and Technology
RFID technology consists of tags, which are often different shapes for different items, and an RFID reader. The tags contain an antenna and a microchip that can hold data and are usually placed inside items (and often hidden from view). Libraries use "passive" tags as opposed to "active" tags; passive tags do not have their own power source and can only be read when activated by a reader. The tags can be read through materials and even from a few feet away. Readers can be placed at different points in the library, and portable readers can read whole shelves of books in minutes. Items can be read in stacks and while moving as well.
Library RFID replaces two technologies: the barcode for tracking items and the electromagnetic strip to prevent theft. RFID tags allow for a quick and easy check-out and check-in process; many libraries have even set up self-checkout stations. Libraries often put sensors at exits that activate the antennas on the tags and send the information to the computer system. If the system doesn't show the book as being checked out, an alarm sounds. Millions of libraries use RFID technology across the world and are constantly coming up with new ways to use it.
Since clerks no longer have to flip and open books to find barcodes, RFID reduces repetitive stress injuries amongst library employees. It also saves time, freeing up staff for more pressing tasks, and streamlines self-checkout for patrons. Unlike barcode technology, RFID technology is highly reliable and durable because the chips are not exposed and therefore do not deteriorate as quickly. The library can also do quick inventories without needing to physically pull books off shelves.
Disadvantages & Concerns
A frequent concern that arises with this technology is patron privacy. Most libraries, however, only use tags that contain an item number, so no patron information can be read with a rogue reader. However, some patrons are less likely to use libraries with RFID technology because they think they are being tracked. A very real concern is the cost of installing RFID; for small libraries it can be prohibitive. Although it hasn't been a persistent problem, removal of the RFID tags is possible as well.
- Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images