Staff set free at Australia’s first RFID library

A Sydney council claims to have created Australia’s first, self-serve library using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, as part of a wireless e-commerce strategy.

Residents of Baulkham Hills Shire Council in Sydney’s north west can scan a borrowing item along with their library card, at any of the council’s four libraries, at newly installed multipurpose kiosks, without librarian assistance.

Borrowers first insert their library cards in the grey, free-standing kiosks, press a borrow button on the kiosk’s touch screen and pile their items on the kiosk’s scanning area. The scanner transmits data from the Library Management System to the antennae of each item’s rewriteable microchip (1mm x 1mm). The chips then send data back to the scanner to complete the process.

Unlike traditional barcode systems, RFID needs no contact between the microchips and the scanning device, and multiple chips can be read simultaneously. Microchips using RFID can also store more data, offering users a real-time view of stock.

To return their items, borrowers place their items in a short metal chute built on the outside wall of the library for the same scanner-chip process. Once scanned, a hatch at the end of the chute releases to let items slide into the library.

Murray Lawter, systems technology team leader at the council, said the six-month-long project went live on June 16. He estimated that 70 per cent of the project’s $1.5 million cost was the tagging of library items.

“We had a consultant in 1998 who identified a lot of areas for improvement in libraries, and one of those was the use of a self-check system. There was a statistic that 85 per cent of librarians’ time is taken up by circulation,” he said.

The council tendered last year for a solution, looking around the world and at all technologies.

“Initially we wanted a biometric with fingerprint ID [to access the system], but staff didn’t want that,” he said.

Council also rejected the use of radio magnetic and electro magnetic strips on borrowing items as they couldn’t be programmed for stocktaking like RFID.

“We went with a company called ST LogiTrack which is part Singapore-government owned and it is installing this in Singapore’s libraries,” Lawter said.

In its use of the RFID system, Lawter’s team increased the number of data fields for items to help in library stocktaking. The amount of data that can be used is determined by the amount of electric current that scanners send.

However, the library system is only one part of a larger e-commerce strategy.

“Eventually these kiosks will be anywhere [in the municipality] and people will be able to pay their rates at Castle Towers [shopping centre],” he said, adding that the kiosks can be wireless networked.

"The idea is that people will use cards with a magnetic strip to pay electronically.

“You’d first feed your money through another machine, like those at university parking stations, and that would put credit on this card.”

Integration of the RFID and existing systems took six months. Aside from containing library item data, the council’s Library Management System also holds financial and Web data.

To integrate RFID with this legacy system, the council installed Electronic Library Information Management System (ELIMS) servers at each of the four sites.

Data from the Library Management System was extracted and exported to an SQL database, which was then picked up by ELIMS.

“We also found our Library Management System couldn’t be distributed, so we had to upgrade our WAN links,” Lawter said.

New library cards for borrowers were also required to work with the new system, and the insertion of microchips in borrowing items was a huge task that ran from January, he said.

The microchips cost between $1.50 to $3.50 each, according to Lawter, with custom designed (programmed) chips more costly than standard chips. Council used both types in the project.

Since implementation, the librarians’ whole workflow has changed, he said.

“It’s really changing how staff operate. They can spend more time helping people instead of being at the desk.”

Adelaide City Council will become the second Australian council to use RFID when it opens a library using a similar ST LogiTrack system on Monday.

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