Library Efficiency: There’s a Scanner for That

Photo by Zane Hill / OUTLOOK Longtime Crowell Public Library employee Lora Smith demonstrates the ease by which library patrons can scan their library card and check out materials using the library’s new radio frequency identification system.
Photo by Zane Hill / OUTLOOK
Longtime Crowell Public Library employee Lora Smith demonstrates the ease by which library patrons can scan their library card and check out materials using the library’s new radio frequency identification system.

It seems like a simple addition to the facility, but it is a welcome one for the staff at Crowell Public Library.
The new RFID — radio frequency identification — hardware was recently installed at the library’s checkout desks and at the entryways, and the staff is now well into the Herculean task of placing the system’s corresponding tags
into the nearly 90,000 books and other items circulated from the library. Those tags, which are essentially square stickers on the insides of covers, contain a chip that transmits the book’s information to the system to check it out to a patron.
The ability to, say, stack several books on each other for
a machine to read simulta-neously represents a productive improvement over having to individually open each book and scan a barcode by hand. That the library’s self-checkout machine also is equipped with the RFID technology, which is expected to improve the library’s efficiency.
“Sometimes we only have one person here and they’ll step out for a break, so this will alle-viate that,” explained librarian Irene McDermott. “This is really, I think, going to increase productivity here.”
The machines were up and running at the end of June, but McDermott said she expects to have the library’s contents fully tagged and “live” by the end of the year. As items are tagged, they’ll be able to be checked out via RFID immediately, and new additions going forward will already be tagged.
The system cost nearly $55,000, but was paid for entirely by donations from two organizations — Friends of the Library and the San Marino Library Foundation. The library board of trustees approved the project earlier this year, contracting with a German company for the services. (Perhaps ironically, the technology was developed by the British during World War II as a means of detecting whether incoming planes were their own or the Germans’.)
“It will simplify things and it will also make everything more accurate,” said Eldon Swanson, vice chair of the library board of trustees. “Anytime you can gain efficiency, I think it’s important. From a library standpoint, I think it’s a very good move. There were no city funds at all used for this.”
Because the RFID system has developed well beyond its infancy, its programming is fairly universal and standardized now, meaning the tags cost cents apiece now, as opposed to dollars back when there were many different iterations.
“It’s been in the industry for a bit,” Swanson said. “Manufacturers use it to keep track of parts, and this is a good application for this technology.”
Libraries that already had bought into an older system will have to remove old tags first, creating extra work for themselves. Swanson said there are two primary suppliers and added that McDermott chose this company after consulting with other libraries.
“We’re able now to afford to tag all of our books,” McDermott said. “A lot of bigger libraries, like Pasadena, haven’t been able to do it because they have so many books.”
McDermott said staff at the library, which has about 20,000 visitors each week, also will be able to use scanning devices to quickly find specific books on shelves. Scanners at the doors also will sound a brief alarm when somebody carries an item out without checking it out. (The same scanners also send
the item’s information to the library’s computers to identify what was taken, if it needs replacing.)
“It will be able to control the whole inventory of the library,” Swanson said.

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