RFID Tags Accelerate Progress

In spite of the fact that RFID technology is not new–it’s been patented for more than three decades (Roberti, 2005)–I really had absolutely no idea what it is or how it is implemented in libraries.  This week, I decided to take a break from breaking trends and take a look instead at a solid technology that has been used by many libraries for the past decade.

What is RFID?

RFID, or radio frequency identification, allows items to be tracked with radio waves.  RFID technologies basically use radio waves to automatically identify tagged objects (Shahid, 2005).  RFID tags consist of a chip and an antenna, packaged as a thin adhesive label.  These tags can be made in a variety of shapes and sizes and adhered directly to objects such as library books (Edwards & Fortune, 2008).  Different types of tags are required for different objects.

RFID tags are used in conjunction with RFID readers or receivers, which are composed of a radio frequency module, a control unit, an an antenna.  The antenna generates an RF field; when tags pas through the field, information stored on the chip in the tag is interpreted by the reader.  The reader sends this information to a server, which communicates the information to a system, for example, a library management system.

RFID in Libraries


RFID tags are used in libraries in a variety of ways to track items.  When tags are affixed to library materials, it is much easier to follow the movement of an item.  For example, they are often used in check-in and check-out processes.  RFID can read ID tags regardless of position or orientation, which makes check-in and check-out easier and more accurate.  RFID readers can even be attached to book drop slots, so items may be checked in as soon as they pass through the slot.  Depending upon whether the tag is active or passive, tag readers may be able to activate/deactivate tags when books are checked out and returned, ensuring that a book’s status is updated almost instantaneously, without requiring staff to manually activate or deactivate the tag.  This can save a great deal of time–in one study of RFID tag use, an Australian library reported an 80% reduction in circulation procedures after the implementation of RFID tags (LibSuccess.org).


When RFID tags are affixed to all of the items in a library’s collection, inventory can be conducted with greatly increased efficiency and accuracy.  All library staff need to do is pass a portable, hand-held wand alongside the books on a shelf.  The wand, which is a reader, picks up the signals from each tag and records inventory status.  The individual books need not be moved or even touched.  This results in both faster and more accurate inventory processes–for example, the California State University, Long beach library is able to inventory 5,000 books per hour using RFID tags, and the Vatican Library in Rome estimates that it can inventory 120,000 tagged items in only half a day as opposed to the month it took to do so before they instituted an RFID system (LibSuccess.org).


RFID tags can also be equipped with special theft-detection bits.  When items are checked out properly, the bits are deactivated, so the items can pass freely through readers.  When items without deactivated bits pass through readers, the system may be programmed to sound an alarm, preventing item loss.

RFID vs Barcodes

But, wait–don’t barcodes do essentially the same thing already?  Yes and no.  Libraries have been using simple barcoding systems for years to nearly the same effect as RFID tags, with a couple of caveats.  First of all, yes, barcodes do allow library management systems to identify items, and they are used for check-in/check-out procedures.  However, there are a few key differences:

  • Barcodes can generally be read by multiple scanners, while RFID tags may only be read by specific readers
  • Barcodes must be physically scanned, one by one, whereas RFID tags allow multiple items to be read simultaneously without a physical scanning process
  • Barcodes are uni-directional–the data may be read, but it cannot be written.  RFID reads from and can write to the tag.

These differences highlight key strengths and weakness of each format; indeed, many libraries use barcodes and RFID tags in conjunction to harness the benefits of both technologies.

The Lowdown

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained?  (Description)

This week, I learned about RFID (radio frequency identification) tags.  RFID tags are tiny adhesive patches consisting of chips and antennae that communicate with RFID readers.  In libraries, RFID tags are used for checkouts, inventory management, and security purposes.

How can you use what you have learned?  (Application)

RFID technology has been in use in libraries throughout the past decade, so it’s good to finally know what that really means.  Understanding how RFID works helps me conceptualize how the inventory management and control processes function.  Knowing how RFID tags can make taking inventory a much faster and more accurate process, for example, would make me feel much more positive about doing inventory in a library that uses RFID.

How does it relate to library work?  (Reflection)

RFID relates directly to library work as many libraries use RFID technologies.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use?  (Activities/Resources)

Edwards, S., Fortune, M.  (2008).  A guide to RFID in libraries.  Retrieved from http://www.bic.org.uk/files/pdfs/090109%20library%20guide%20final%20rev.pdf

Librarysuccess.org.  (2011).  Radio frequency identification (RFID).  Retrieved from http://www.libsuccess.org/Radio_Frequency_Identification_(RFID)

Pandey, P. & Mahajan, K.D.  (n.d.).  Application of RFID technology in libraries and role of librarian.  Retrieved from http://eprints.rclis.org/15253/3/RFID.pdf

Roberti, M.  (2005).  The history of RFID technology.  RFID Journal.  Retrieved from http://www.rfidjournal.com/articles/view?1338

Sahid, S.  (2005).  Use of RFID technology in libraries: A new approach to circulation, tracking, inventorying, and security of library materials.  Library Philosophy and Practice 8(1).  Retrieved from http://unllib.unl.edu/LPP/shahid.htm



Beacons Lead Patrons to Library Services

Imagine that you’re strolling through your local library, returns in tote, wondering if you’ve remembered everything.  You neatly slide the items into the return slot, enjoying the softly muted and strangely satisfying thunk as each material joins dozens of others in the bin, waiting to be checked in, sorted, and shelved for another happy patron.  You wander into your favorite section of the library to choose something new, idly wondering if there are any upcoming library events.  Before the thought is complete, a soft buzz from your phone alerts you to a list of upcoming events that may be of interest.

Noting those that sound interesting, you continue making your selections.  As you approach the checkout machines, another vibration causes you to look at your screen.  A list of titles appears–your previous checkouts–and a quick glance confirms that yes, you indeed did forget at least one item.  You quickly set a reminder to return or renew the item tomorrow.

On your way out the front doors, you pass the genealogy section.  While not a section that you browse frequently, you decide that it might be interesting to sit in on an introductory workshop or two.  You pause at the genealogy section, opting in to receive event notifications.  Within a few seconds, a list of upcoming events is sent to your phone.  Everything that you need has been sent instantly and silently to your device, based upon the locations that you visited because you chose to opt-in to the service.

We live in the weird future–the weird, wonderfully weird future, where technology is capable of doing practically everything–and the technology I described may soon be available in a library near you.  Several libraries in the United States have begun experimenting with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons and coordinating apps to reach out to patrons with highly targeted, location specific information.

What are Beacons?

According to the ACRL, beacons are hardware “that can notify Bluetooth devices of their presence and transmit information” (2016, para. 1).  Beacons are low-energy devices which transmit small packages of data constantly.  They do not require an internet connection to function.  Beacons can be strategically placed to create a network; mobile users can receive information from the network when they are within proximity of the beacon.  When paired with an app, beacons can trigger events on a mobile device, such as  a pop-up notification of events.  Two popular beacon/app companies in the library industry are Bluubeam and Capira Technologies.

How are Libraries Using Beacons?

Libraries are using beacons in a variety of innovative ways to connect patrons with valuable information.  Beacons can be used for:

  • Circulation notices
  • Event notices
  • Informational notices
  • Shelving notices
  • Patron assistance
  • Tracking
  • …and more!

Why Beacons?

Let’s face it:  people today are plugged in nearly all the time.  It’s hard to go somewhere and not see people staring at their phones.  Libraries are facing this reality, too.  According to RFID Journal, “Capturing the attention of a distractible public is a growing challenge for libraries that have historically been known as a quiet institute rich with books and media, but not much beyond that” (2014, para. 2).  Beacons engage patrons on their terms and help patrons see libraries as vibrant cultural institutions that are in touch with the services that the public wants and needs.

Concerns about Beacons

The biggest potential drawback of beacons is patron privacy.  Although beacons only transmit information and do not collect data, they can trigger data-collecting applications.  The presence of beacons in a physical space can also enable tracking because an application may record a beacon track and report it to a network service.

Because beacons may present security risks, it is important for libraries to make sure that patrons understand what information is being collected when patrons use beacons.  it’s also important to allow patrons to opt-out.  Indeed, most beacons are designed to be opt-in services, so patrons will not receive notifications unless they specifically opt-in to the service.

The Lowdown

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained?  (Description)

This week, I learned about Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons.  Beacons may be paired with apps to allow patrons that allow patrons to opt-in to receive notices from the circulation, event notifications, etc. tied to specific locations within the library.  Beacons capitalize upon technology that patrons are tied to (smart phones and tablets) to share information and create community with library users.

How can you use what you have learned?  (Application)

Beacons, which are low-energy and low cost, present a great opportunity for patrons to interact with the library on familiar terms.  I think that they are a great potential asset for both academic and public libraries, and implementation should definitely be explored.  If I were currently working in a library setting, I would definitely encourage my fellow staff members to consider using beacons in the library.

How does it relate to library work?  (Reflection)

Beacon technology relates directly to library work as it is a potentially vital means of forming connections with patrons and creating a community of library users built upon common ground.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use?  (Activities/Resources)

BluuBeam.  [2016].  BluuBeam for libraries.  Retrieved from http://bluubeam.com/pages/libraries

Capiratech.  (2016).  iBeacon library app integration.  Retrieved from http://www.capiratech.com/products/capiramobile/ibeacon/

Enis, M.  (2014).  “Beacon” technology deployed by two library app makers.  Library Journal.  Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2014/11/marketing/beacon-technology-deployed-by-two-library-app-makers/

McNulty, E.  (2015).  Libraries get cutting edge tech with ibeacons.  Dataconomy.  Retrieved from http://dataconomy.com/libraries-get-cutting-edge-tech-with-ibeacon/

Spina, C.  (2016).  Keeping up with… beacons.  Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/publications/keeping_up_with/beacons

Swedberg, C.  (2014).  Libraries check out bluetooth beacons.  RFID Journal.  Retrieved from http://www.rfidjournal.com/articles/view?12521



Purdue’s Virtual Notebook: A Wiki Worth Reading

Another day, another question–or, to be more precise, the same question.  If you’ve ever worked at a reference or a circulation desk, you know what I’m talking about–those questions that pop up over and over again with such incredible regularity that you hardly have to think before directing a search.  Without missing a beat, you can navigate a patron to the appropriate resources because you’ve frequented this topic so–well, frequently, that you’ve got it down.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, rest assured that you’re not alone.  Back in 1897, Eleanor Woodruff, a librarian at the Pratt Institute Free Library, wrote about the repetitive nature of reference questions in Library Journal (Bejune & Morris, 2010, p. 27).  Woodruff advocated for recording questions and answers on readily available materials, such as old catalog cards, and arranging them by subject to expedite the process of finding answers to common queries.  Locally developed reference resources are now well-established , and the forms they take range wildly from vertical files and Rolodexes to Post-it notes and Word documents.  Today, reference tools have become increasingly web-based.  One solution for ready-reference is the wiki.  Wikis, which are free, require little technological knowledge, and allow open access, have many advantages over more traditional physical reference formats and have replaced messages, email lists, and handwritten notes at some university libraries (Bejune & Morris, 2010, p. 30).

One particularly innovative use of wikis to support reference is Purdue University’s Virtual Notebook.  In 2007, upon the suggestion of a graduate reference assistant, Purdue library staff began to create a virtual reference tool to replace the physical reference notebook that had served as a resource for reference desk staff for over ten years.  The wiki, which was powered by Atlassian Confluence software, allowed contributors to work asynchronously or synchronously, either on campus or remotely.

Content for the Virtual Notebook was gathered from a variety of sources, including the existing FAQ Engine, discussion lists, archived chat and email questions.  Contributors also created new content in response to other questions that they had received from library patrons.  Once the content was collected, it was organized into subject headings which serve as the primary form of navigation through the Notebook.  Virtual Notebook users can also use keyword searches to search the entire document, and staff can leave notes or messages for each other in a dedicated space, replacing emails or sticky notes left in a physical location.

While the Virtual Notebook provided several significant advantages over the Purdue libraries’ intranet-based resources, including easier editing options, revision history, and an open architecture allowing anyone to contribute, implementation and use of the resource was underwhelming.  Changing reference needs, consolidation of libraries and reference/circulation desks, and new software adoptions presented challenges to the utility of the wiki and highlight the ever-shifting technoscape of the modern library.

The Lowdown

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained? (Description)

This week, I learned about Purdue University’s Virtual Notebook, a wiki that was designed to combine the physical compilation of notes and various digital services used by library reference staff to provide patron assistance.  The wiki combined the content of the FAQ Engine with questions asked of staff through email or chat as well as anecdotal questions.  While the wiki was advantageous in that it provided for open contribution and had improved search functionality, it was unfortunately underutilized by staff and quickly became at-risk for replacement or complete overhaul as library needs changed over time.

How can you use what you have learned? (Application)

I think that the idea of replacing physical notes with a wiki is quite reasonable and useful.  Since wikis can be edited easily and modified by users, they present a great opportunity for staff to continue working together to build a useful resource.  One of Purdue’s greatest challenges was the combining of several circulation/reference desks into one, which created a much wider array of questions.  This made it difficult to maintain the comprehensiveness and relativity of the wiki.  In a different scenario in which the library were smaller, the field of questions more focused, or the staff more acclimated to using wikis, the Virtual Notebook may have functioned as a reliable tool for a greater period of time.

How does it relate to library work? (Reflection)

Wikis are a popular and useful tool that can be implemented by libraries in a variety of ways.  It’s important to be familiar and comfortable with this technology.  However, it is also important to reflect upon the ultimate implications of the Virtual Notebook, which became irrelevant very quickly–technology changes quickly and in order to retain relevance, it is important that librarians stay abreast of new developments.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use? (Activities/ Resources)

Bejune, M. M. & Morris, S. E.  (2010).  The development of the virtual notebook, a wiki-based ready reference technology.  Reference & User Services Quarterly, 50(1), 27-34.

Gottfried, J., DeLancey, L., & Hardin, A.  (2015).  Talking to ourselves: Internal communication strategies for reference services.  Reference & User Services Quarterly, 54(3), 37-43.

Makerspaces: Making Libraries Creative Spaces

On the corner of Broadway and Swinney Avenues in Fort Wayne, in the old Allen County Sweeper shop, something exciting has taken place:  the Allen County Public Library and TekVenture have opened a permanent TekVenture maker station.

As a maker station, TekVenture is a sort of makerspace on steroids, featuring “digitally controlled rapid prototyping and “personal fabrication” tools including a CNC router and milling machines, 3D printers, a metal lathe small injection molder, a vacuum forming prototyper, assembly areas, and other tools for making things” (TekVenture, 2015).  What do people do there?  Well, they make cool things–really, really cool things like this kinetic chandelier made of recycled dinnerware.  Inspired by TekVenture’s really cool stuff, I decided to focus my technology exploration this week on makerspaces.

Makerspaces have become a hot technology topic in libraries over the past several years, but they are still a relatively new phenomenon.  So just what is a makerspace?

Quite simply, a makerspace is a place where patrons and community members can come together to create, use, and share new materials and ideas.  It’s a place to make stuff at the library, which presents a place and an opportunity to learn that libraries are about more than just books and overdue notices.  There is no formula for making a makerspace–while 3-D printers are a common technology for libraries to start adding to existing technology to create a makerspace, it’s uncommon for these places to be identical.  Makerspaces are as unique and diverse as the communities they serve.

Makerspaces require physical space, planning, resources, staff, and–of course–money.  Utilizing specialized equipment requires training, which requires more time, staff, and even more money, yet many librarians see the value in adding these unique learning spaces.  In TechTrends, one librarian notes, “Libraries are, in general, in a fight for their lives where it’s change or die.  If nobody comes to your library then no one is going to fund you” (p. 109).  Makerspaces can provide a unique feature that adds value to the library and draws in patrons who may not be regular library visitors.

While makerspaces present a unique opportunity for libraries to attract patrons, they also pose some challenges to librarians.  While many librarians expect to utilize technology on the job, few are fully trained and prepared to step into management of a complex creative learning space.  Additional training is often required, which can demand flexibility from the newly minted or comfortably seated staff.

At the end of the day, I am excited by the opportunities presented by makerspaces in the library.  These unique learning environments encourage creativity, foster community, and present libraries with an almost unparalleled opportunity to introduce patrons to something new.

The Lowdown:

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained? (Description)

This week, I learned about makerspaces.  I read about what they are and the directions that some libraries are taking in creating these spaces.  I read about some of the challenges and opportunities of creating a makerspace.

How can you use what you have learned? (Application)

Makerspaces are becoming more and more common in libraries, particularly in public library settings.  I can use the information that I have learned to continue following this trend with a more informed approach.  In the future, I will be able to discuss the benefits of makerspaces while acknowledging the very real challenges that they may present in budgeting, staff training, and management.

How does it relate to library work? (Reflection)

Anyone interested in public libraries should be aware of the makerspace trend and should be able to discuss makerspace technology with a certain level of comfort.  Even if one is not interested in direct management of a makerspace, it is important to be able to discuss the community-building opportunities created by integrating new ideas and resources in the library.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use? (Activities/ Resources)

Dixon, Nicole, Michael Ward, and Eric Phetteplace. 2014. “The Maker Movement and the Louisville Free Public Library.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 54, no. 1: 17. Advanced Placement Source, EBSCOhost (accessed February 4, 2016).

ELuthy, C.  (2015).  Educating librarians about makerspaces.  Computers in Libraries, 35(9), 4-8.

Harris, J., & Cooper, C. (2015). Make room for a makerspace. Computers In Libraries, 35(2), 5-9.

Moorefield-Lang, H. (2015). Change in the making: Makerspaces and the ever-changing landscape of libraries. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice To Improve Learning, 59(3), 107-112. doi:10.1007/s11528-015-0860-z

TekVenture.  (2015).  Retrieved from:  http://tekventure.org/