Frequently Asked Questions about RFID

Beginning in January 2012, the Washington County Cooperative Library Services (WCCLS) is installing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology in member libraries in order to increase staff efficiency, enhance the security of library materials, and, most importantly, make it even easier for you to use the library.

What is RFID and how does it work?

RFID is a method of remotely storing and retrieving data using devices called RFID tags that can be attached to a product. RFID tags contain antennae to enable them to receive and respond to radio-frequency queries from an RFID transmitter/receiver. RFID tags are used for a wide variety of purposes, including employee ID badges for businesses and government agencies, pet identification tags, and inventory control in many retail stores.

How do libraries use RFID?

Libraries place RFID tags in each library item (book, CD, DVD, etc.). The tags are used to check materials out and in and are also used in the library’s theft detection system. These tags are passive, containing no power supply, so they can’t transmit any data on their own. When a library user or staff member places tagged items on or near a receiver pad and scans the user’s library barcode, the items are checked out. The receiver pad sends an incoming radio frequency scan to the tag, which induces a minute electrical current in the tag’s antenna, allowing the tag to send the item’s unique identification number back to the receiver. The receiver then communicates the identifier to the library’s computer system, completing the transaction.

Is RFID a new technology in libraries?

No.  RFID has been successfully used in libraries in Asia, Europe and North America for over a decade. In the U.S., you’ll find RFID-tagged collections in libraries in Multnomah County, Fort Vancouver Regional Library District, Seattle, Eugene, and dozens of other communities. RFID use in libraries is safe and maintains the privacy of patron records.  Increasingly, libraries are adopting RFID technology to handle growing workloads.

Why are we implementing RFID tracking for library materials?

Reduce staff handling of materials to speed the processing of checkouts and returns and to reduce repetitive motion injuries for staff.  With RFID, items move faster through the system because multiple items can often be checked in or out as a group rather than individually. This not only makes materials available to patrons more quickly, it also lowers the incidence of repetitive stress injury (such as hand, wrist or shoulder pain) among the staff and volunteers who handle library materials daily. In the future, RFID offers the potential to automate other manual tasks (such as sorting) to improve efficiency even further.  A study by one library showed that items with RFID tags require 80 percent less handling than items with a barcode and a magnetic security strip.  WCCLS library checkouts are projected to increase by 9% annually over the next five years.  RFID should allow member libraries to manage this growth without significant staffing increases.

Improved theft prevention and collection management. RFID tags double as security tags for the libraries’ theft detection systems. A study at Salt Lake City Library showed that RFID tags were more effective in preventing theft than the magnetic strips that are currently in use at several WCCLS libraries. In addition, RFID technology makes it easier to locate items that are on hold, missing or misshelved. With RFID, library staff can conduct periodic inventories that would otherwise be too labor intensive to undertake, thus enabling better stewardship of the collection.

Faster, easier checkout of materials for library patrons. Many library patrons prefer the speed, convenience and privacy of checking out their own materials, and RFID makes checkout even better. The latest RFID-enabled checkout machines allow users to checkout multiple books and other items in one step, renew materials, and perform other self-service activities. High self-check rates are common in libraries with RFID, and library staff can still help you when you need it, while also handling increasing workloads.

Are there any health effects associated with RFID?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and many other organizations have conducted extensive research on the potential health effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields. According to the WHO, “scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals” (www.who.int/peh-emf/about/ WhatisEMF/ en/index1.html).

Devices many of us use everyday function with radio frequencies and electromagnetic fields, such as TVs, radios, cordless phones, cell phones and Bluetooth headsets, or wireless networks. The WHO has concluded that, at the frequency used by library RFID systems (13.56 MHz), there is no evidence of adverse effects to general health or pregnancy. Nor is there any record of interference with medical devices such as pacemakers, though consumers should continue to inform themselves about possible interactions with any source of electromagnetic fields.  

Since the RFID tags placed in library items are passive, they do not produce radio frequency signals except when in proximity to a powered transmitter, such as those used in library checkout stations and security gates. Patrons may be assured that a library book or DVD does not produce a radio frequency on its own. 

Does RFID equipment interfere with pacemakers?

There is no known risk of interaction between RFID anti-theft gates and pacemakers.  If you wear a pacemaker you should consult with your physician and refer to the manufacturer’s recommendations for your specific device.  Pacemaker wearers should not linger close to the detection system equipment.  However, significant effects are unlikely to occur if you walk at a normal speed through the gates.

Will there be an RFID tag in my library card?

WCCLS does not plan to use RFID-enabled library cards at this time. We will continue using barcoded patron cards for the foreseeable future.

How is my privacy protected when RFID tags are used to identify library materials?

The library’s RFID tags will carry only unique numerical identifiers. No title, author, publisher information, patron name or use pattern can be found by reading an RFID tag placed in WCCLS library materials. 

Has (or will) the conversion to RFID caused any staff to lose their jobs?

The intent with RFID is to gain efficiencies and improve processes so that member libraries are able to effectively manage increasing workloads with the staffing levels we have.  RFID will allow staff to spend less time in the backroom sorting materials and more time on the floor working directly with library patrons.

What was the cost of the RFID conversion?

The cost of the RFID conversion, checkout stations and security gates is expected to be approximately $1.4 million.  Based on a study commissioned in April 2010, the yearly savings due to improved efficiencies are approximately $300,000 per year.  Consequently, the RFID project should pay for itself in 3 to 4 years.  Furthermore, RFID technology is an essential prerequisite for Automated Material Handling (AMH) systems, which would yield even greater productivity improvements.

For more information

This document is substantially based on the Multnomah County Library RFID Q&A web site.  The Multnomah County Libraries converted to RFID technology in 2010 and 2011.