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Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID) tags have or may have applications in library circulation systems. They can function as a tattle tag, assist in self-checkout, and help automate the sorting of returned materials. RFID provides libraries with a new means of inventory tracking, and with subsequent new concerns and responsibilities towards patron privacy.


RFID stands for radio frequency identification. RFID systems use a chip or tag that emits a radio wave and a reader that reads the wave. The radio wave is called the electronic product code (EPC) and is associated with a single tag or chip. RFID provides real-time tracking and other information (location, destination, etc.) for items using it. EPC uses the EPC protocol, which tells the system how data on the tag is stored and determines how the tags and the readers communicate.

The tags also have an antenna to transmit to the reader. There are two types of tags: active and passive. Active tags use batteries to power communication with the reader. These tags in essense constantly emit signals. Passive tags only emit signals when within the interrogation zone of the reader. (The interrogation zone is the area that can be "read" by the reader.) The reader creates an electromagnetic field, which powers the tag and allows it to emit a signal to the reader.

The reader uses an antenna to pick up analog signals. When the reader's wave hits the tag, the tag emits a wave at a different frequency containing its information. That is how the reader "reads" the tag, similar to how a car stereo picks up radio stations (Sweeney 2005: 9-20).

RFID technology allows libraries to insert passive, high frequency RFID tags onto their collections in what is called “item-level tagging” (Molnar 2004). This process expands the capability of standard bar coding. When an RFID tag comes into contact with a reader, a microchip on the tag is activated and read. Information is exchanged between tag and reader and stored onto a database. Like a bar code, a tag remains attached to an item as long as that item is catalogued.

Security concerns[edit]

In lieu of patron information on the RFID tag, libraries use “a unique bar code number instead, one that would have to be hacked out of a library's circulation database to connect it to a specific title” (Mieszkowski 2004). Despite these precautions, existing single-write RFID tags contain fixed data which can be mapped by wireless hackers.

RFID industry standards exist, such as Z39.83-2002, the National Circulation Interchange Protocol (NCIP) and the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 18000-3 (Wikipedia 2006). Current tags have been shown to possess serious security design flaws (Molnar 2004). Future RFID iterations may contain improved security.

Privacy debates[edit]

This technology benefits libraries by allowing patrons to perform self check-out. RFID proponents attest to increased patron privacy. The success rate regarding checkout varies, as low as 70% (Smart 2004).

RFID facilitates inventory control, allowing staff with compatible RFID wands to shelve and track books. This saves time, reduces repetitive stress injuries, and frees up circulation staff. RFID systems include security, but are not foolproof: thieves can thwart the detection system by wrapping items in aluminum foil (Warfield 2005).

As is true for any nascent technology, establishing a new system can be expensive. Libraries must investigate potential RFID investments carefully. While RFID has the potential to benefit libraries by automating portions of circulation and inventory, certain aspects of the technology raise issues of concern to information professionals.

For libraries, the same arguments apply. If the tag is not deactivated, the item with the tag could be associated with a particular patron, violating his or her privacy. The tags could in theory be used to view the patron's currently borrowed materials and possibly previous materials borrowed. For most libraries, such peeking is a violation of policy.

Wireless signals risk interception. In addition to cost and compatibility concerns, privacy advocates allege that RFID tags can be misused as low-cost, portable electronic surveillance to profile or track individuals. In theory, rewritable tags would allow higher levels of security, but current library RFID tags contain permanent serial numbers, which permit tracking.

RFID trackability may be an asset at non-circulating libraries such as the Vatican, whose priceless collection is closely guarded (RFID Gazette 2004). Libraries with circulating collections must take into account the security and wishes of their patrons. Unlike proposals for RFID tags in retail use, library patrons who object to RFID have no means to opt out of the system. Their only option would be to patronize a non-RFID library.

Groups such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) oppose the use of "live" RFID outside the library. Yet, in order to work, RFID tags must remain active. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees issues such as RFID frequency, but has made no specific recommendations regarding RFID deployment in libraries. To create a valid middle ground for their particular environment, information science professionals have begun to formulate “best practice” recommendations.

In January , 2005, the American Library Association (ALA) adopted the Resolution on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Technology and Privacy Principles. The resolution reaffirms the librarian's professional obligation to protect user privacy and joins in BISG Policy #002: RFID - Radio Frequency Identification Privacy Principles, developed by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) with the participation of vendors, publishers, booksellers, and library representatives. Intended for “businesses, organizations, libraries, educational institutions and non-profits that buy, sell, loan, or otherwise make available books and other content to the public utilizing RFID technologies” (BISG 2004), it requires a formal privacy policy presenting patrons with full disclosure regarding RFID and other types of data-gathering technology in use; prohibits recording personal data on RFID tags; and requires data and security safeguards, as well as compliance with established laws. The resolution calls for the process to be overseen by an independent auditor.

The ALA Resolution on Radio Frequency Identification Techology and Privacy Principles also directed the ALA to develop implementation guidelines for the use of RFID in libraries. In accordance with that mandate, the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee released RFID in Libraries: Privacy and Confidentiality Guidelines in January, 2006. The guidelines counsel libraries to protect user privacy by adopting these best practices when implementing RFID:

  • Secure bibliographic and patron databases from unauthorized access and use.
  • Use the most secure connection possible for all communications with the Integrated Library Systems (ILS) to prevent unauthorized monitoring and access to personally identifiable information.
  • Protect the data on RFID tags by the most secure means available, including encryption.
  • Limit the information stored on a tag to a unique identifier for the item (e.g., barcode number, record number, etc.)
  • Block the public from searching the catalog by whatever unique identifier is used on RFID tags to avoid linking a specific item to information about its content.
  • Do not store personally identifiable information on any RFID tag or RFID-enabled borrower cards; instead, use a unique identifier.
  • Label all RFID tag readers clearly so users know they are in use.

As part of the ALA’s mission to monitor RFID technology, the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA), a division of the ALA, hosts an RFID Interest Group and disseminates information about RFID developments within the ALA. The ALA also maintains an RFID Discussion List (RFID_LIB).

Wikipedia has a good discussion of privacy issues dealing with RFID.


  • American Library Association. January 19, 2005. Resolution on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and privacy principles.
  • Book Industry Study Group. April 23, 2004. BISG policy statement: policy #002: RFID - radio frequency identification privacy principles.
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation. October 1, 2003. Privacy risks of radio frequency identification 'tagging' of library books. Letter to the San Francisco Public Library Commission.
  • Mieszkowski, K. July 26, 2004. The checkout line—or the check-you-out line?
  • Molnar, D. & Wagner, D. October 25-29, 2004. Privacy and security in library RFID: issues, practices, and architectures. Proceedings of the 11th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security, Washington, DC.
  • RFID Gazette. September 17, 2005. RFID and privacy concerns.
  • RFID Gazette. July 9, 2004. Vatican library employs RFID tracking.
  • Schneider, K. November 19, 2003. RFID and libraries: both sides of the chip.
  • Smart, L. October 15, 2004. Making sense of RFID. Library Journal.
  • Sweeney II, Patrick J. 2005. RFID for Dummies. Indianapolis, Wiley Publishing, Inc.
  • Warfield, P. & Tien, L. April 8, 2005. RFID: Many problems, little public discussion. Berkeley Daily Planet.
  • Wikipedia contributors (2006). RFID. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

External links[edit]

  • LISNews search results on library news for "RFID"
  • RFID Technology for Libraries
  • ALA Resolution on Radio Frequency Identification Technology and Privacy Principles
  • RFID in Libraries: Privacy and Confidentiality Guidelines
  • The American Library Association's stance on RFID as part of their discussion on Intellectual Freedom Issues
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • LITA (Library and Information Technology Association), hosts an RFID Interest Group
  • RFID Gazette
  • Talking Tags The Chronicle article
  • NISO Recommendations RFID in US Libraries
  • RFID Video RFID in Live Action
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