code128barIn my opinion RFID isn’t really the main thing that enables automated check-in, it’s the thing that enables automated check in. You can do auto check in using barcode only, but it’s sloppy. Hardware and software exists that will read a barcode over and over again and then “stitch” the code together. Thing is, I’m told it’s not all that great.

Barcodes have a real singular downfall and that is there is only one way you can read a barcode. A laser has to cross the code and it has to cross the code completely for it to effectively read it (without any software intervention). That means that if the laser or the barcode is askew, off, tilted, slanted, whatever; then that code won’t get read. With RFID, all that needs to happen is a tag must be within a given range of a reader. Doesn’t matter if that tag is under something and it doesn’t matter what position that tag is in. As long as it comes within reading distance, it gets read.

This also means that you can read more than one RFID at a time while you can only read barcodes singularly.

Another big downfall of barcodes is that they are singular and give you one, and only one, piece of information. In the case of the library and UPCs, that information is a number. All our barcodes tell you is a number. It’s up to something else (the ILS) to figure out what that number means. RFIDs can give you more than one singular piece of info and, depending on what you set up the tag to tell you, that info can be interpreted in different ways by different programmes. Now let me give you an idea of how those things go together:

Patron comes to our self check in. Ours will read both barcodes and RFID, but if it reads the RFID it will know not one, but two things even before resolving the item number (same as the barcode) with Polaris. It will know the item number, which it fires off to the ILS, but it also knows what the item type is. It’s not so important now, but it’ll know if the item is a videotape and thus it knows not to hit it with the big magnet like it usually would to resensitize something.

rfidlabel21RFIDs can tell you much more. Indeed, there are tags that would be able to relay title, branch, item number, and other information. We don’t do that, but perhaps we should look at it.

But the future, oh, that’s already here. There’s an RFID solution available that I absolutely lust after.

Like I said, RFID tags can be read as long as they’re within range of the antenna. But with our setup, and most everyone else’s set up, that tag only comes within range on antenna when it’s checked out and checked in and that’s it.

What a freakin’ waste of tech. Especially since there’s absolutely no reason that RFID reading antennae cannot be attached to the shelves.

So what? So this. A patron walks over to an OPAC and looks for a book, say Anathem. They find it and it says it’s checked in. But is it on the shelf? You and I both know that being in and being on the shelf are two completely different things. So the OPAC might offer a small button on the screen. Click it, and a signal goes out to the fiction area, where Anathem should be. That signal calls on the shelf to scan each RFID tag in a given area (all of the authors who have last names beginning with S, for example). It queries each item on that shelf. Do any of them come back as Anathem? If so, let the patron know. If not, well, let them know that too.

Or dig this. I’m sitting at my desk and I can’t find a book on the RTF list. It shows in, but god knows where it is. So I send out a signal to all of the shelves in the library and it asks the same question: Does this shelf contain this item number? It’ll then shoot me back a response that says if it found it, and if so, which shelf it’s actually on

vallejo-librarianIn other words, we could use RFID enabled shelves to examine our inventor in real time. We could craft a query that would tell us how many items are on the shelves now. Right now. We could ask how many DVDs are in. We could create a query that says compare everything on the shelves with everything Polaris says is currently in; if the item shows in but does not appear on the shelves, mark it missing.

It gets better. Use the same tech, the same RFID enabled shelves, but adding one small extra element: an LED. Then you set up a specialized RTF list that does the following steps, and it does these before it even prints out the list for you.

1. Determine what’s on hold

2. Does it show in?

3. Query the RFID enabled shelves.

4. If the item is found, activate the LED. Each shelf with a glowing LED has one or more items to pull. You can ignore the other shelves.

5. If the item is on hold, shows in, but is not found during the initial shelf scan in step three then mark it as missing and don’t even bother printing it out on the RTF list. It’s not there, why trouble the librarian to find it?

6. After all the items are processed run the report again using the same list. Report back on any items still on the shelves, deactivate the LED on shelves that have been cleared. Finish up.

Try doing that with barcodes, or don’t, because you can’t.

So are they the future? Yes. We’re just not doing it right yet. But we’re getting closer.