From card catalogues
to radio waves
Westmount Public Library implements its RFID system
By Michael Walsh
Those of us of a “certain age” fondly remember using card catalogues, sorted by author and subject, to locate library books. Housed in beautiful oak, or cherry wood, cabinets – one would patiently thumb through the well-worn cards to find a book’s location.
Interestingly, the library card catalogue first appeared in France during the revolutionary government. In 1789, the French government established a system of public libraries using books confiscated from the country’s religious institutions. By means of creating a listing of these holdings, a cataloguing system using the blank sides of playing cards was devised and became widely adopted as the French Cataloguing Code of 1791.
By 1877 standardized sizes of library cards were adopted by the American Library Association. One was termed the Harvard College size (5 by 12.5 cm), the other was a Postal size (7.5 by 12.5 cm).
The card catalogue remained a ‘fixture’ of libraries until the early 1970s, when barcodes began to appear in public libraries. The first library to adopt this new technology was the Kent branch of the Camden Public Library. Specifically, in 1972, a Plessey Light Pen system was installed to read printed barcodes attached to library materials. From that point, computerized circulation systems become a standard feature of libraries.
A casualty of this new technology was the card catalogue cabinets – relegated to store rooms or discarded. They still appear for sale, depending on size, costing in the range of $500 to $5,000. The Westmount Public Library has repurposed one for their Seed Lending Library. Another is still in use, in the library’s reference department, to index copies of the Westmount Examiner.
Nostalgia aside, computerized database systems do have many advantages over manual systems. For example, in the latter it is difficult of determine if a book is currently on loan and reserving a title is a cumbersome process.
The use of bar codes assigns a unique control number to a record (with all its pertinent information) in a database. Different patterns of light are reflected from a barcode as it is scanned by an optical reader. Software converts these light patterns to programming commands that select the appropriate database records associated with the item.
In library systems, an optical reader scans the barcode on the patron’s library card. Once scanned, software retrieves the appropriate database record associated with the library card. A second barcode scan, of the material being borrowed, pulls up the record associated with the item. Information on the former record includes patron information and outstanding fines. The latter’s record displays the item’s information, such as title, author and any hold requests. Finally, the two records are linked with the software calculating the due date. One last scan degausses the magnetic strips placed inside library material (“tattle tape”) allowing the item to pass through the detection systems installed near the library’s entrances.
As barcodes became a ubiquitous technology in libraries, in the 1980s a newer management system using radio waves started to appear along Europe’s highway toll collection points. These technologies encompass the term “Radio Frequency Identification” – more commonly known as RFID.
An RFID system (broadly) contains three components: an RFID ‘tag’ that is attached to an object (animate or inanimate), a transceiver known as a “tag reader” comprising an antenna and communication software that transmits this information to an enterprise system.
First described by Harry Stockman’s seminal paper in 1948, entitled Communications by Means of Reflected Power the concept needed to wait several decades until the microprocessor, integrated circuitry and communication networks were developed. By the 1960s RFID systems became commercially available and were first used as anti-theft devices – physically attached to valuable merchandise.
The 1980s saw the advent of the personal computer that allowed a cost-effective method of processing RFID data. During that same period, RFID systems were used in Europe for electronic highway toll collections. A decade later, as integrated circuits became smaller in size and more powerful (Moore’s Law) RFID technology appeared in railway transportation and access control.
In wasn’t until 1998 when libraries started to streamline their functions to reduce long-term costs that these organizations started to adopt RFID technology. By 1999, Rockefeller University and the Farmington Community Library in Michigan were the first to adopt RFID technologies.
These were the first to capitalize on the technology’s ability to provide additional functionality to all areas of library workflow – particularity: circulation, security and inventory control.
Libraries (public and academic) have been slow in adopting RFID technologies. In 2012, only ten percent of libraries in the United States used RFID. In other countries, however, the adoption rate is higher – during that same year approximately 3,000 libraries had installed RFID systems.
At this point, one might wonder what this has to do with the Westmount Public Library? Quite a bit actually. In a local publication, there was a (very) brief mention that the Westmount Public Library was implementing an RFID system.
A few weeks later, I was fortunate to meet with Julie Bouchard (Librarian – Systems and Technical Services) and Julie-Anne Cardella (Director) to discuss the library’s implementation of RFID technology. The library staff had managed to attach RFID tags on their collection of approximately 167,000 items. This was accomplished during a brief period that the library was closed for minor renovations that involved new carpeting, additional furniture and a reconfiguration of study and reading spaces. “The process was seamless”, Ms. Cardella mentioned, adding that minimal staff training was required for the new system. The process of tagging items was simplified since all items had an existing barcode associated within the library information system (V-Smart). Once an RFID tag was placed on the item it was a simple matter to copy the barcode onto the tag.
The solution used by the library was provided by Bibliotheca. This included a touch screen selfCheck kiosk that uses a barcode login provided by the patron’s library card. The kiosk is configured with proprietary software (quickConnect) that communicates with the library’s information system. One huge improvement over prior self-check kiosks is that RFID tags do not rely on “line of sight”. More specifically, one can stack up to 5 items at a time on the kiosk – regardless of orientation – during the same transaction.
Additional hardware included two RFID gates installed close to the library’s entrances. Looking closely at each transparent (white aluminium) panel what appears as a design feature is actually an antenna that reads RFID tags as items pass through the gate. Interestingly, the gates are normally in a “power saver” state until people enter with a tagged item – at that point they enter an RFID detection state. The tags (read at the rate of 8 per second) determine if an item is allowed to pass through the gates – if not, an audible alarm is triggered coupled with visible red LED lights. In addition, each gate has a “people counter sensor” that provides staff with data on patron traffic patterns.
An additional piece of hardware, used by library staff, is the “RFID workstation shielded” used by circulation desk staff for checking out and returning items. It comprises an antenna that, because it is shielded, only detects RFID tags when items are placed directly on the surface. Similar to the self-service kiosk, multiple items can be stacked, regardless of orientation.
The final part is the Library Management System that integrates all these components into a web-based system used by the library staff. The system used is V-smart, originally developed in 1974 (as VUBIS) at The University of Brussels, now distributed by Infor.
Next time you use the self-service kiosk and have your receipt sent to you by email, remember how far we have come from the days where library books were chained to their shelves.
I would like to thank Julie Bouchard (Librarian, Systems and Technical Services) and Julie-Anne Cardella (Director, Westmount Public Library) for their time and assistance in researching this article.
Images: Michael Walsh, unless indicated otherwise
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He is happily retired from nearly four decades in the field of higher education technology. A “professional student” by nature, his academic training, and publishing, include statistical methodology, mycology and animal psychology. During this period, he was also an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Prior to moving to Montreal, he was contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Education evaluating bilingual primary and secondary school programs. Today, he enjoys spending time with his (huge) Saint Bernard while discovering the city’s past and sharing stories of the majestic trees that grace the parks and streets. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his blog Westmount Overlooked