Thursday, February 10, 2005

Missing the forest for the trees: RFID & libraries

Came across the following headlines: "Berkeley puts $650,000 into library book tracking system - Some raise privacy concerns over technology" (Times-star, 8 Feb 05). Summary of the article:
  • Berkeley Public Library feels the investment is justified, as it would reduce library checkout time for users and lessen worker strain injuries.
  • Repetitive motion injuries among library employees have cost the library $2 million over five years.
  • Automating repetitive tasks would free up library staff to do other more meaningful tasks, like assisting readers.
  • Some users worry that RFID technology could be used as a surveillance tool that might intrude on the users' privacy. For instance, a book on some private/ sensitive subject could be linked to the reader.
  • In Berkeley, there are also concerns that the RFID system is being implemented at a time when the library is struggling financially.
  • Other library users are concerned that increased automation would lead to a more impersonal environment, where users would not feel personally welcomed and safe, and should machines break down, there would be no one to turn to.
The concerns mentioned above were fairly consistent with all other articles and discussions about the implementation of RFID in US libraries that I've come across so far -- the potential abuse and loss of readers' privacy, and the loss of the human touch.

I understand that Singapore's public libraries were the first in the world to implement RFID technology on a large scale (i.e. its entire public library system). We've had RIFD for 22 of our public libraries for about 5 years now. Personally, I can't imagine us not having RFID.

For instance, I do not know of any other technology that would allow library books on loan to be cancelled the very instant they are dropped into the book-drop (i.e. book return bin). This feature of RFID alone has been a tremendous boon to readers and staff alike. After dropping off the items, readers can proceed to borrow more library materials right away (before RFID, they had to wait for up to 30 minutes just to get their items cancelled). In many ways, there's less pressure for staff doing the cancelling of loans. In the NLB public libraries, we have staff doing a manual cancellation of loans in the backroom (apart from this being an additional check to ensure the loans are cancelled, it also allows staff to retrieve reserved items and spot any damaged items).

So far, I do not know of any NLB members (or non-members) raising any concerns about loss of privacy with RFID. I'm not sure if Singaporeans are less concerned about privacy issues that say, readers in the US. Or perhaps those Singaporeans who are concerned simply do not use our libraries.

My take on the privacy issue is this: Any opposition to RFID on the grounds of intrusion of privacy is really a case of missing the forest for the trees. The benefits far outweigh the risks, in my opinion. Even without RFID, there are already ways for the library to (for lack of a better word) intrude on "readers' privacy" if the library really wanted to. For instance, the circulation program could easily be modified such that the system retains a record of the books borrowed by a library member -- and the library does not even have to tell you that they have this capability.

As for the loss of the human touch, the real issue is about the increased level of automation in libraries rather than RFID per se, isn't it? Staff salaries are a huge part of the total operating costs of any organisation (unless its predominently volunteer-run) so as usage of the service increase, the need to automate repetitive tasks is really a given (I mean, check out this article as well -- Robots being developed to retrieve library books. And you'd inevitably have people who are less enthusiastic about using automated services.

I wouldn't say that these people are the older folks, because I know many "old people" who embrace technology wholeheartedly. Perhaps the people who say they don't use libraries because of new technology are those who don't use libraries in the first place, i.e. as an excuse for not using the library. Honestly, I've not come across any regular reader who has to give up going to the library because we introduced more self-help services.

Could these people (voicing the issues) be a "vocal minority"? Maybe. Which could be why some libraries may decide to put the RFID issue to a vote. I wouldn't go for a vote for one main reason -- unless you have a very comprehensive prototype, most people would not be able to envision what the new technology might be. They would therefore cast their vote based on their understanding of current technology, which may be very far off from the real thing.

Seems like trying to stop RFID implementation in libraries could be like trying to dam a river with only a few twigs at a time. It's going to be inevitable. The moment the cost of RFID tags come down, it will be unstoppable.

The potential loss of personal privacy and the loss of the human touch is something larger and not limited to just RFID in libraries. Consider how banking and shopping is done nowadays -- even interpersonal relationships at work, school, play etc. Hence those issues should be dealt with from a systemic point of view, i.e. how we carry out social and commercial transactions between people and organisations.


  1. I remember queueing for up to an hour during weekends at the library donkey years ago before those nifty self-service borrowing stations came out. There's not much of a "personal touch" unless you are talking about harassed and understaffed librarians hurriedly stamping and chopping, say, 16 books for each person (4 cards per family) in a neverending queue that sometime snakes all the way out of the library itself. :D

    Nowadays, the only time I get to meet a librarian is when I reserve my books online and retrieve them from the library counter. Even then, I noticed the librarians rotate shifts alot; it's hard to recognise someone familiar to even establish a nodding acquaintance and I'm talking about my neighbourhood library here.

    (On a side note, I am so tempted to tear out those paper pockets and "Date Due" stamp slips I find in the occasional old book to keep as a souvenir... >-D )

  2. My colleagues will still say that they are as harassed and understaffed as before.

    BTW, you've made a very astute observation in your 2nd para. Seems that some things've changed but some still stay the same. Something that I want to post next...

    Thanks for sharing!


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