Friday, October 19, 2007

Mundane and mundanity

After some tinkering, I finally managed to get my barcode scanner working again. For the past few weeks, I've had to manage circulation by keying in barcode numbers by hand, which is very inefficient. In cases where there's multiple copies of items, it can also create problems with monitoring circulation. I thought I might need to return it to the manufacturer for repairs, but all that was needed was to reconfigure the reader using some barcodes in the user's manual. Given that I'm doing a stocktake at the end of semester, this is a big relief. It wouldn't have been feasible without it.

This experience got me thinking about a professional seminar I attended recently. It included a sales presentation from 3M about RFID technology, which has already been implemented in many public and academic libraries. Rather than affix a barcode to each item, you affix to it a specially encoded microchip, which contains data about the item and circulation data. This would come in very handy come stocktake time. I do a stocktake every two years, and each time it has taken several days to complete, requiring me to remove every item in my library from the shelf and scan its barcode, working a section at a time. With RFID, a full stocktake can be completed in a few hours. All you need to do is walk past the stacks with a hand-held scanner which instantaneously reads each item's RFID tag. You upload the data from your scanner to your computer, comparing this to your catalogue records, and the process is complete.

The other purported advantage of RFID is that it makes circulation more efficient. It reduces the time it takes to issue items out to patrons, particularly during busy periods. There is no need to individually scan each item's barcode. You simply pass them over a scanner pad. It's so simple that patrons can check items out to themselves, freeing up library staff to do other tasks. This part of the sales presentation didn't set very well with me. Some librarians, myself included, actually enjoy their interactions with patrons, and in no way do they see this aspect of their work as being less important than other tasks. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some library users find libraries intimidating, even to the point of being too frightened to ask for help with even simple queries. Often this is because they think that doing interrupts the librarian's work, and if they do ask for help, it's often as a last resort. As I see it, the downside of this technology is that it could create another barrier between library staff and library users. The experience of visiting a library shouldn't be like a bank or supermarket, where the customer wants to spend as little time as possible there. To my mind, libraries should be inviting and personable places to visit, and not merely utilitarian places to complete transactions.


Gemma said...

Good point Ross. It sounds great but... Plus, you forgot to mention the $. I am pretty sure most little libraries wouldn't be able to afford RFID.

Ross McPhee said...

Yes, I forgot to mention how expensive RFID is. Unless we found a wealthy benefactor, there's no way known my institution could afford it.

Foolish Thing Nine said...

Ross, I think that you should know I am deathly afraid of you and would never ask you for any help in the library whatsoever.

Ross said...

hey, you have the same name as me.