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



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