three library issues, part 2: rfid self-checkout

Increasing numbers of public libraries are moving towards a self-checkout system, based on radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. This is not the slow and often painful process you encounter in Ikea or Home Depot, where customers are forced to supply free labour by doing the work of cashiers, while corporations pocket the savings. (I've been planning to write about that for a while; future post.)

RFID in libraries is a simple process: you can view an example here. Customers can check out a big stack of items by placing the entire stack on the sensor and inserting their library card into a slot. RFID checkout eliminates the need to scan the barcode of each item individually, and several customers can check out all their items at the same time. Libraries will (or at least should!) still have a circulation clerk on hand to greet customers and help people who don't want to use the RFID equipment.

I have mixed feelings about this. RFID checkout is quick and easy to use. It does make the checkout process faster and more efficient. It also puts people out of work. And there are privacy issues inherent in the use of RFID that are largely being ignored.

First the labour issue. I don't expect companies to retain outdated technology in order to keep people employed, and in the public sector there is an obligation to hold down costs. But is the technology actually outdated, or is some corporation profiting from their ability to convince us that it is?

As the Mississauga Library System transitions into RFID self-checkout over the next couple of years, no one will be laid off (or so we are told), but people who leave or retire will not be replaced. This has been the case for many years; the workforce is being cut by attrition. Lower-skilled jobs continue to disappear, and options for decent employment continue to shrink.

The Mississauga Library is aggressively promoting RFID self-checkout to staff. In addition to saving time and being more efficient, we are told that self-checkout improves staff health and safety, and improves customer privacy. This strains credibility. The health of circulation staff has not been a major concern, and while circulation clerks will no longer see what items a customer borrows, RFID is not a privacy protector. It is a privacy threat. For more information on RFID privacy issues, see "RFID tags: Big Brother in small packages" by Declan McCullagh at CNET. Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre, authors of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track your Every Move with RFID follow RFID-related news on their website, SpyChip.com. A more nuanced view is found here: How RFID Will Impact Consumer Privacy.

Customer privacy is of the utmost importance to the library, given the library's strong commitment to intellectual freedom. The ALA has formulated policy and best-practice guidelines for the use of RFID, but whether any given library system will follow them, I cannot say.

Karen Schneider, Chair of the California Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee, has written an excellent paper outlining the pros and cons of RFID use in the library. Among the concerns, she writes:
8. Librarians nationwide have acknowledged that privacy concerns related to RFID are new territory. No profession cares more about its users’ privacy than librarianship. However, we are only beginning to connect the dots with respect to RFID. We as a profession need to develop best practices for RFID and advertise these practices widely. We can either manage this issue or let it bite us in the fanny as watchdog organizations and the general public ask, correctly, why, and how, we are implementing this technology in libraries.

9. Libraries are part of the general world commons, and none of our actions take place
in a vacuum. There is an inexorable march toward RFID in libraries, for highly
compelling reasons outlined in the first section of this testimony. However, we cannot
assume that our tags cannot be read by (or have no interest to) other organizations, or that we are not contributing to the accumulated It has been observed that libraries adopting RFID en masse send an overarching message that we understand and approve of this technology.

10. Libraries have proved vulnerable to national agendas. Recent legislation (CIPA and
the Patriot Act) demonstrates that libraries have become highly porous battlegrounds for
some of the larger privacy and public -forum debates in our society. With CIPA, many
library budgets became dependent on the telecommunications discounts made available
through E-Rate, essentially forcing some libraries to adopt draconian policies and
procedures that limit Constitutionally-protected speech to adult users. With the Patriot
Act, we have seen the government become increasingly inventive and aggressive in its
efforts to track the reading habits of library users.
We're told the principal reason for adopting RFID in the library is as a cost-cutting measure. Will it really save money? The system purchased by Mississauga costs $2.6 million, which doesn't include staff training or maintenance or future related costs. I honestly don't know how this compares to the savings in labour. It's possible that public funds have merely been shifted from employing people in the community to purchasing equipment and maintenance contracts from private vendors.

The frustrating part of this, for me, is the same as with most technological changes: the technology drives the change. This is available, so we'll use it. Those of you who want to study the issues can do so later, when it's too late.


James Redekop said...

It seems to me that RFID check-out is no more risky with regards to privacy than any other form of computerized checkout. Is any information added to the check-out database records with the RFID system that wasn't added with the old system? Or was the old system not computerized?

laura k said...

What makes RFID a privacy threat is that the tags stay live no matter where the item is. If there's an RFID tag on your so-called "enhanced" drivers' license or on your passport, that tag is readable from quite far away (much further than published) and is often readable through your clothes, wallet, backpack, etc. We don't want library items to become tracking devices.

Bar codes mean nothing unless they're scanned. RFID tags are beacons or homing devices.

johngoldfine said...

customers are forced to supply free labour by doing the work of cashiers, while corporations pocket the savings.

I don't expect to have a secretary to take dictation; I do my own typing and am fine with that; I'll even stand over the copier when I have a rare handout that is not available for my students online.

But, more and more, clerical functions only indirectly relating to my teaching responsibilities are tossed onto my workload. I find myself required to do data entry of grades, student status updates, and so on that used to be done by hourly-wage data-entry clerks.

That, of course, is a classic old-union no-no. I teach the student, I figure the grade, you enter it.

That delineation is classic old-style unionism--it may seem inefficient to the Taylorists in the front office, it may add costs on the consumer end, but it's designed to prevent job creep and to protect jobs.

Alas, when I grieved new management demands, that grievance was not a winner!

Anonymous said...

The privacy issues surrounding RFID tags definitely deserve a hearing and mature consideration. That being said, I remember how freeing these machines were once I got to university. Growing up as a closeted gay kid in a small conservative town, the library was one of my few outlets for materials about homosexuality. I was always far too scared to check out books about these issues at the main desk, even though in retrospect the librarians probably wouldn't have cared the slightest, and would no doubt have encouraged me to do so. I can also imagine people checking out books on personal issues, whether it's divorce or cancer, finding these devices useful and comforting.

laura k said...

Dan, I appreciate your perspective. And I do support anything that protects personal privacy at the library. If the library could somehow assure customers that the FBI, CSIS, and the like will not be using their RFID tags, I'd feel much better. But as we know, the library was implicated in the Patriot Act, so...

In my comics and graphic novels course, the prof - who lived in Japan for many years and whose PhD is about manga - said that in Japan, when you buy any book at a bookstore, it is put in a plain cover as a matter of course. Most Japanese people spend a lot of time on trains, and they read voraciously, and everyone's book is in a plain cover - no one knows what anyone else is reading.

Even though on the NYC subway I used to love to see what people were reading, I think this plain cover idea is brilliant.

impudent strumpet said...

I didn't realize until I read this that what they use to check out library books isn't the same thing as barcode technology. Do you know why they went with RFID rather than bar code? At the Toronto library at least, the self-checkouts still have a barcode scanner to scan your library card with, and I know that barcode can work for self-scanning because Loblaw's has it. What's gained by introducing a second technology?

laura k said...

I'm pretty sure the new self-checkout at TPL will be RFID, but it hasn't been rolled out system-wide. It's probably only in pilot at one or two branches, as they convert.

Almost every library already uses barcodes and scanners. RFID is what's next. If the library is determined to go self-checkout to cut back on staff, RFID is way easier for the customer.

At high-traffic, heavy-volume libraries, to ask customers to scan every item themselves would be terrible. RFID checkout is much faster and easier.

I dislike the self-checkout at Loblaws, Ikea, etc. and would be VERY unhappy if library customers had to deal with that.

If you look at the video link above, you can see the difference.

It also makes it easier for library staff to trace and find items, using a wand.

laura k said...

But as you can see from this post, I also question the need for introducing a new technology!

James Redekop said...

There's definitely a general tendency to adopt a new technology because it's shiny, rather than because it's necessary. That's all very well if you're a reasonably well-off technophile buying yourself a new tablet, but there's something to be said for companies holding onto existing, working technology as long as it's adequate to its task, rather than jumping from newest to newest.

laura k said...

It's nice to hear a high-tech person say that! That actually describes my feelings on moving from paper books to digital books. :)

Libraries have been using barcodes and scanners for quite some time. I don't know when widespread adoption started. Late 1980s, early 1990s? I'm going to try to find out.

laura k said...

Timeline of technology in libraries

Not much of a timeline, but it notes that barcode technology use in libraries was widespread in early 1970s.


(sorry about the all caps)

Various other sources online say the first barcode scanner techonology for libraries dates to the early 1970s. I can't find when there was widespread adoption in North America, but I'm pretty sure it was in the 1980s.

impudent strumpet said...

I've noticed that at the TPL self checkouts, customers nearly always do scan each item individually. I don't think it's well known that you can do them in a batch (I only discovered it by accident - and then I was very excited about scanning four things at once!). If you're doing it one at a time, it takes even longer with RFID than with barcode. RFID takes three or four beats where barcode takes one,

laura k said...

So does that mean your branch does have RFID but people aren't using it properly because of inadequate signage/instruction?

I did some investigating (which would be a lot easier if I worked at TPL). It looks like RFID self-checkout was tried at 7 or 8 pilot branches in 2008, then expanded to 40 more branches in 2010 or 2011.

All this will supposedly save on labour. But the money won't be reinvested into the system. It will be used (from what I read) to decrease the budget. Consolidating branches is still on the table.


impudent strumpet said...

I actually don't even know if there is signage or instruction. The process seems glaringly obvious when you approach the computer (there's basically only one thing you can do at each step) and the job gets done (even if it did end up being less efficient than it could be), so it never occurred to me to actually look around for instructions.

laura k said...

Yeah, that makes sense. But if people could be checking out a stack of books all at once, and are doing them one a time, they do need some instruction.

Do you know the willingness or need to read instructions is a generational thing? It's actually been shown. Older people are more likely to look for instructions or manuals and read them. Kids pay no attention to any instructions, even a help screen. And there's a gradation in the middle that corresponds to age.

If the library did post instructions, it would mainly be for the benefit of older users, according to this.

James Redekop said...

Older people are more likely to look for instructions or manuals and read them.

I guess I'm backwards -- as long as I've been able to talk, I've been noticing my father having trouble assembling something, checking the instructions, and correcting him. With mixed degrees of appreciation...

laura k said...

It's a generational thing, not an individual age thing. Our generation, for the most part, still reads manuals - although we will approach technology intuitively.

Generation older than us, manuals only. Generations younger, intuit only, if instructions are needed, won't use the stupid thing.

That's what the stats show, anyway.

James Redekop said...

Yeah, but my father was the generation older than me, and was always "manuals never".

I don't doubt the stats, but the exceptions can be interesting. :)

laura k said...

Oh! Ha, I mis-read your comment.

Yes, stat exceptions are interesting. I frequently confound my classmates' thinking because I'm of an older generation, but have as great or greater comfort with technology as they do.

James Redekop said...

Lori constantly confounds her contemporaries by being a first-rate system administrator and security architect, and a quilter. (The sheep herding also confuses people.)

laura k said...

And if Lori were younger, that mix would be commonplace - witness all the high-tech knitters. One of the many ways I'm a misfit in school is that I don't knit.

I predict sheep herding will always confuse! :)

James Redekop said...

There are more women in tech now, so you see more of such things. Though the most prominent person who quilts in the Lori's-generation tech world is male: Cliff Stoll, famous for his roll in tracking down the hacker Marcus Hess in the 80s. He also makes and sells Klein bottles.

laura k said...

Beautiful bottles, crappy website!

I find it very amusing that knitting is hip. My mother is a champion knitter, and none of her three children knit, so naturally I associate knitting with an earlier generation. And my mother is decidedly not hip!

James Redekop said...

Yeah, the website hasn't changed in 20 years.

BTW, here's a knitting webcomic. :)

laura k said...

Definitely has that early website look. At least it has a good URL! The look goes with the old geocities or angelfire names. That would be pretty silly coming from a tech person.

Knitting webcomic, it figures! Uberhip. Good name.

impudent strumpet said...

I think the generation/instructions thing is an indirect correlation. I think people look at instructions if they have reason to believe they don't know how to use the thing, and they skip the manual if they have reason to believe it will come naturally.

Once, when I was about 10, I was staying over at my grandmother's house and I wanted some soup. My grandmother has an open-fridge policy for her grandchildren, and I wanted to prove how mature and grownup I was by making the soup myself rather than asking her to make it for me. I'd never actually made soup before, so I took the can and carefully read the instructions, preparing to follow them to the letter. My grandmother was all "What are you doing messing around with the instructions? It's just a can of soup!" She saw no reason to look at the instruction, and was reacting as though she thought I was dawdling or being passive-aggressive or something by following the instructions rather than just making soup.

To her, a can of soup is self-explanatory; to my 10-year-old self, it was a new frontier. And I'm sure the feelings are reversed about a self-checkout machine with a touch screen with a big green "Start" button.

Maybe if they wanted to promote the fact that you can scan multiple items at once, they should present it as "Look at this cool trick you can do with our self checkout machines! Bob scanned six items at once! Can you beat his record?"

laura k said...

Maybe if they wanted to promote the fact that you can scan multiple items at once, they should present it as "Look at this cool trick you can do with our self checkout machines! Bob scanned six items at once! Can you beat his record?"

There's an idea.

It really bothers me that the library is promoting RFID as a faster, more efficient means of self-checkout, eliminating jobs, but customers are not even getting the benefit of the speed and efficiency.

So Imp Strump, at the TPL branch(es) you use, is there a library staff person around when you're checking out or walking in? Do you have to walk far into the library before you see a staff person or an information desk?

impudent strumpet said...

Yes there is, the front desk is the first thing you see. It's perpendicular to the doors (not parallel like a reception desk) so traffic is funnelled past it rather than to it, but it's right there.

We are getting some speed benefit from the self checkouts because there are more of them (my branch used to have one worker at checkout, pulling in a second from whatever the rest of their job is when there's a long line) and now we have four self-checkout machines plus one human so there's hardly ever a line any more. Of course, if people knew they could do multiple books at the same time, that "hardly ever" would probably be downgraded to "never".

laura k said...

I'm glad to hear this. It makes me feel a little bit better about self-checkout.