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University of East Anglia's Library Automates Circulation Tasks

The school uses RFID to check out, check in and sort books, freeing staff to provide more research help to library patrons.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
When returning books to the outside drop box, patrons can read step-by-step instructions from a computer monitor mounted next to the box on the building's exterior. The chute is locked, preventing unauthorized parties from dropping garbage or other inappropriate items into the box. To access the chute, patrons must first present a library card, either to a bar-code scanner or to an RFID reader mounted alongside the drop box. The Intellident software collects the ID and compares it to a current database of valid cards.

If it finds a match, the system sends a command to unlock the drop-box door so the patron can insert the items being returned. A monitor instructs the patrons to insert items one at a time, then confirms when each item is successfully returned. Inside the chute, a motion detector, an RFID reader and the Intellident software operate in the same manner as in the interior book-return station, sending each item down the chute to its appropriate cart.

The conveyor system diverts the book into one of eight carts—one for each of the library's seven floors, and another for exceptions.

"At the UEA library, there are no staffers sitting behind desks to handle returns, or checking items out anymore," says Chadbourne. "This is a sign of change in library culture." He is quick to point out, however, that the library has no plans to reduce the size of its staff now that much of the circulation work is automated. "We are not replacing staff with this machinery. The library is just taking the staff's boring, monotonous tasks and replacing them with more meaningful customer services tasks," he explains.

The new system has been live for the past six weeks, Chadbourne says. The library does not expect students or other patrons to object to the transition to RFID-enabled library cards, he adds, as the read range of the 13.56 MHz inlay is just a few centimeters, and because no names or other personally identifying information is encoded to the tag.

Chadbourne declines to reveal the total cost of the system, noting that the library has not yet set any concrete timeframe for reaping a financial return. Still, he says, it expects marked improvements in its customer services and may be able to expand its hours of operation.

Chicago State University also uses an automated system that sorts items by reading attached RFID tags (see RFID Helps CSU Library Automate Sortation, Storage). Whereas the UES system uses just one read point to both check an item back into circulation and also sort it, the CSU system uses two separate read points for these tasks. Rather than utilizing ISO 15693 tags and readers, CSU's collection is tagged largely with tags from Tagsys, which use a proprietary interface. However, CSU is migrating to tags and readers compliant with ISO's 18000-3 standard for high-frequency RFID.

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