Magazine article Computers in Libraries

RFID: Helpmate or Conspiracy?

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

RFID: Helpmate or Conspiracy?

Article excerpt


RFID, Radio Frequency Identification. If it weren't for the coiled antenna on the tags you would hardly be able to see them. Place your library card and a stack of books in close proximity to an RFID reader and your books "automagically" check out. Take inventory with a wave of a wand. Sort books by subject without human intervention. Experience courteous and efficient self-service, made possible by a chip no bigger than a grain of sand.

But wait! Don't you know? RFID is a conspiracy. It's been called "the worst thing that ever happened to consumer privacy" by CASPIAN: Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. They tell all the sordid details at http://www.nocards .org. They envision a "marketer's war against consumers" led by RFID technology tagging everything we buy, everything we wear, and, more to the point, everything we check out of our local libraries.

Whoa! How did we get from WalMart to the local story lady? The Electronic Frontier Foundation ("Defending Freedom in the Digital World") has written to the San Francisco Library Commission deploring even the mention of RFID in the library's long-range plan. The group writes, "EFF opposes any use of RFID technology unless the planned implementation includes mandatory deactivation ("mandatory kill") of the RFID tags at the point at which the patron leaves the library" (letter dated 10/1/2003 available at http://

One would have hoped that an organization such as EFF, which bills itself as technologically savvy, would have understood that "killing" an RFID tag as it leaves the library is the same thing as ripping off the bar code, thus leaving no way to track the material. But it might be worthwhile to examine what all the fuss is about and to suggest a solution, at least insofar as libraries are concerned.

It Was Once Worse

Libraries have actually come a long way in protecting the privacy of patrons. It didn't used to be that way, and it is technology that has made it all possible. In the first library where I worked, the patron wrote his or her name down on a book card. The book card contained the call number, author, and title at the top, plus a complete record of who had checked out that particular copy. Upon check-out the card was replaced by a date due card, but when the book was returned, the book card was re-inserted before the book was placed back on the shelf. Anyone browsing the collection could instantly tell who had checked out any copy. Indeed, an entire record of all patrons' reading histories existed in the stacks as sort of a loose database of cards and pockets.

The second library where I worked used a variation on this scheme. You wrote the library card number on the book card. I remember helping patrons at circulation and often seeing people check out the same book over and over as they hauled out stacks of mysteries and westerns they had already read. It was obvious because the library card number stayed on the book card itself, once again a history of circulation for that item.

The third library had yet another variation. In this scheme we used Gaylord "kerchunker" machines. That was library "automation" for the time. They plugged in. A solenoid slammed the metal date bar on a card as it tore off a hanging chad. The chads occasionally caught fire, which burned the rubber on the solenoid and caused an awful stink.

The patron signed a signature sheet next to a number. That same number was punched onto the book card along with the due date by the "kerchunker" and filed away. The number was impermanent in that it wasn't assigned to a single person. You could trace the history as long as you kept the signature sheets, which were in the large file cabinets behind the circulation desk.

Bar Codes (and RFID) Actually Help Privacy

It wasn't until the advent of bar codes that this vast database of circulation history effectively disappeared. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.