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RFID, coming to a library near you

The dusty shelves of your local library are going high-tech with tagging chips. Civil liberties groups warn of a privacy nightmare.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
7 min read
For a glimpse of how RFID technology could transform stores, factories and people's everyday lives, you may only need to look as far as your local library.

Hundreds of city and college libraries are placing special microchips, known as RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, on books in an effort to make libraries more efficient. The tags are central to a new breed of digital tracking system that can speed checkouts, keep collections in better order, and even alleviate repetitive strain injuries among librarians.

One snag facing RFID, however, is that consumer advocates are in an uproar. They say the unchecked spread of the devices in libraries and elsewhere could spell disaster for privacy. They envision a future in which a network of hidden RFID readers track consumers' every move, their belongings and their reading habits, though most agree that such a scenario is largely impossible today for technical reasons.

"Libraries are much further along with using RFID in a consumer environment than anybody else."
--Jim Lichtenberg,
IT consultant
Yet with RFID systems already in place or soon to be installed at more than 300 libraries in the United States and millions of books tagged, there is little doubt that the long-heralded arrival of a huge RFID wave is for real. As further proof, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently decided to let hospitals inject into patients RFID chips storing medical data. And major retailers, led by Wal-Mart Stores, are marching ahead with plans to put tracking chips on merchandise

Some argue that libraries are ahead of the pack and that the lesson they learn could prove instructive to others.

"Libraries are much further along with using RFID in a consumer environment than anybody else," said Jim Lichtenberg, an IT consultant to libraries. "They represent a wonderful test-bed in which to work through the issues of RFID because they have such a profound concern about the rights of their patrons."

The virtues of recycling
How did libraries become trailblazers of this promising yet controversial technology? And how can these cash-strapped institutions afford to invest in RFID?

The answers to both questions come down largely to economics. One of the big costs of RFID technology is outfitting millions of items with tags. Today, the tags cost around 50 cents a piece. That's too expensive to put on, say, millions of tubes of toothpaste sold across the country every day. Such a move would instantly erase the slim profit companies make on such household items.

But library books and other borrowed materials are different. For one thing, they're supposed to be returned. So once a library tags all its books, they only buy additional tags for new arrivals.

"In retail, you sell it once and it's over," Lichtenberg said. "In a library, they go in and out and in and out for 15 years. So libraries can spend 40 or 50 cents per tag, and it still makes economic sense."

In addition, libraries are sticklers for organization and spend more time and people-power keeping shelves in order than most retailers with equivalent inventory turnover do. As a tool for speeding along the sorting and reshelving of books and the pinpointing of misplaced ones, RFID promises big payoffs.

For instance, the University of Nevada library systems found more than 500 lost items in the process of tagging 600,000 items in its collection, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. It would have cost the library $40,000 to replace those items, according to the report.

"There are a lot of legitimate privacy issues."
--Rick Weingarten,
American Library Association
RFID makes the painstaking task of sniffing out misplaced books much easier, according to proponents. Library staff need only peruse the facilities with a handheld RFID reader, which triggers each book within a few feet to identify itself via a high-frequency signal. A book in the wrong spot sends a special alert to the reader, prompting staff to rescue it.

"Sometimes libraries close down for days for inventory checks," Vinod Chachra, chief executive officer of Visionary Technology in Library Solutions (VTLS), a maker of RFID systems in Blacksburg, Va. "With RFID, you just walk down the aisle with a wand to do an inventory check of an entire library."

Another big reason libraries are interested in the technology is for self-checkout.

VTLS, 3M, Checkpoint and other RFID systems suppliers include check-in and checkout stations with their packages. To check books out, patrons swipe their library cards through a magnetic-strip reader and place up to eight books on a counter equipped with an RFID reader.

The checkout is automatic and disables security mechanisms in the books that would otherwise set off alarms at the door. If libraries outfit library cards with RFID chips too, patrons don't even have to remove them from their wallets in order to check out, Chachra said.

Haven't got time for the pain
Not only does the technology reduce lines at checkout, it frees up library staff for more interesting work, such as helping patrons with research, early adopters say. Or libraries can cut back staff hours and save money on labor costs.

Initially, however, libraries may do well not to slash staff. New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington, N.C., had to recruit about 50 volunteers to put tags in all its books over about a four-month period. At first, it also had to staff its self-checkout station to get people to use it.

"You have to do a bit of proselytizing," David Paynter, the library's director said. "Otherwise, people won't get used to it on their own."

If librarians worry about losing their jobs to RFID, they can at least take solace in this: The systems may reduce repetitive strain injuries that often come with the constant handling of books and barcode scanners. At least that's the expectation of some library systems, including the San Francisco Public Library. After consulting with health experts and other libraries, San Francisco expects RFID to help reduce workplace injuries that cost its library system $265,000 in workers' compensation claims over the past three years.

San Francisco expects to start the project next year even though the plan has drawn sharp criticism from local privacy activists, including the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Because RFID tags can be read from a few feet away though bags and clothing, they worry that government agents and other snoops with the right equipment could stealthily intercept the signals from books sporting the tags to find what's on people's reading list.

The groups have petitioned the city to halt the plan until it agrees to a clearer set of privacy protections and protested on the steps of the library's main downtown branch last month. The library has until the end of the year to iron out the privacy issues, at which point the city will decide whether the project can proceed.

The privacy watchdogs seemed to have singled out San Francisco on this issue, library spokeswoman Marcia Schneider said.

"We're always the battleground," she said. "We were the last people who had to fight to go online and not have a card catalog. We seem to be the flashpoint for a number of these technology issues."

While many libraries downplay the privacy dangers, the American Library Association (ALA) acknowledges it's an issue, albeit a manageable one.

"There are a lot of legitimate privacy issues," said Rick Weingarten, director of information technology policy at the ALA. "Anything that involves content is inevitably wrapped up in the culture wars, and that makes inappropriate monitoring especially worrisome."

The ALA and a book publishing trade group called the Book Industry Study Group recently issued a set of RFID privacy principles, which urge libraries to inform their patrons about the technology, safeguard data generated by RFID systems, and refrain from recording personal data on RFID chips.

Bye-bye, Dewey
Privacy aside, it's unclear at this early stage whether the anticipated savings that come with RFID even add up to cover the costs the technology. Even Chachra of VTLS concedes that the RFID payoff is not a quick one. A full RFID implementation, including tags for books, readers, software and shelf-checkout stations, runs around $1 a book, he said. But prices are falling. A year ago, the cost was closer to $1.60 a book. The San Francisco Public Library, which circulates about 6 million items annually, expects further price reductions. It projects spending $2.8 million on RFID over the next eight years, according to a library official.

The real shakeup could come many years from now, when RFID completely transforms the way libraries operate, if you buy into Chachra's grand plan. He envisions a day when libraries completely do away with the time-tested Dewey Decimal classification system, opting instead for a sort of organized chaos governed by the vigilant and unblinking eye of RFID.

With all corners of a library constantly monitored by a network of RFID readers, librarians could just a toss a book on any old shelf. Finding it again would just require querying a computer that's linked to the RFID system and knows where everything is. The most popular books would end up in the front of the library while the less used get pushed to the back and reshelving would be a breeze.

The concept would require a difficult cultural shift, Chachra admits. And heaven forbid a bug or power outage brings the system down.

"Librarians would have to adjust to a whole new system," Chachra said. "The randomness would be difficult for someone as organized as they are to adjust to."