Frank Seeliger in an interview “The Potential of RFID Is Far from Exhausted”

RFID in Libraries
RFID in Libraries | © Bibliotheca RFID Library Systems GmbH

More and more libraries are coming to rely on radio chips to manage their holdings and to improve service to readers. How much potential really lies in this technology? And does it also pose risks? Goethe.de spoke about this with Frank Seeliger, head of the Library of the University of Applied Science in Wildau.

Mr Seeliger, you’ve been dealing for years in your capacity as a scientist with the introduction of RFID into libraries. What is the potential of this technology?

Without question, an extremely large one. RFID is a technology for the identification of objects. This gives us many opportunities to review and rethink library services. With the idea of a library many people associate the investment of a great deal of time required for finding something. In other words, time that you don’t have because as a working person it’s difficult to go to libraries during their opening hours. This has changed with RFID.

In what way?

Because each book can be provided with a small glued on radio tag, the media can be entered into the system by the library users themselves – work that previously used to have to be done by qualified personnel. In other words, RFID automates routine processes. Thanks to this, we can offer users longer opening times. But his hardly exhausts the potential of RFID.

What other benefits does the technology have for libraries and their users?

Frank Seeliger, head of the Library of the University of Applied Science in Wildau Frank Seeliger, head of the Library of the University of Applied Science in Wildau | © Frank Seeliger There is on the one hand the trend to spectacular large libraries, so-called landmarks. While these undoubtedly serve as great role models, they’re often to the detriment of the network of smaller libraries, which are no less important to cover the local demand for information and make possible shorter ways for people. With RFID it’s now possible not only to support this network by relieving the financial pressure on small libraries, but also to be present at public places outside the library – for example, with lending and return opportunities in underground stations and shopping centres.

RFID, it is said, is a fantastic means of quality assurance and inventory control. Is that correct?

It’s true that RFID can be used for inventory. If the technology is fully integrated into the library management system, you can record very many media in a relatively short time. Such setups, however, are fairly demanding. Of 1,000 libraries that work with this technology in the German-speaking world, I know at present of only one other besides our own that is capable of doing this.

It’s exactly here that people fear the chips can be read by third parties. Privacy advocates have decried RFID for years as a threat to the private sphere. Is this also discussed in your field?

Yes, and of course there’s also a discussion in connection with the use of RFID in libraries. Here of course there are fears that have to be taken seriously. After all, RFID is based on electro-magnetic radiation, which the user can’t see: this alone is already worrying. And of course it’s also true that the data of a RFID chip can be easily read by a third party – for instance with a NFC-enabled smartphone. The question is what you can actually see from this data. In accordance with our data standard, the so-called Danish data model, only the library code, loan status, number of attachments, etc., but definitely not the book titles or personal data of the user.

But the concerns go further. It’s feared that uncertainty about the future uses if RFID could affect the reading habits of users. Is it possible that a user will refrain from borrowing certain books because he doesn’t know the extent to which this information may be intercepted by a third party?

I get the point, but think the criticism is unwarranted. We have very high data standards in Germany. Unlike many other countries, the loan history of a user cannot be identified. The data are regularly deleted by library management software. In my opinion, something is being imputed to the technology here which it can’t actually and shouldn’t do.

What can and should the technology then do in your view?

RFID offers fantastic opportunities to optimize access to media. Who doesn’t know the problem of the difficult-to-find book? Users take a copy from the shelves, read it there and leave it on a desk. Have you ever searched for such a book? A nightmare. With RFID it’s possible to furnish return tables with a reading device. This means that you can find such books in a matter of seconds with the search function of the library software.

Will such applications gain acceptance?

The technological means certainly exist. Unfortunately, the development is stagnating. It’s no wonder, seeing how limited the possibilities are in our segment, which is a small market compared, say, to the automotive industry. When you see how much money is spent on innovative architecture, however, you naturally have to ask whether it wouldn’t be equally sensible to promote the development of an innovative technology such as RFID with the same passion.