Service & Policies - Fall 2006

Radio Frequency Identification (RFI) Comes to Libraries

RFID is an acronym for Radio-Frequency IDentification. As its name states, it is a method that uses radio waves for identifying products, animals, and even people with a small transponder or tag. The transponder is an electronic device consisting of a microchip and a small antenna. The chip contains some identifying data. This data can be as simple as an identification number, or as complex as a medical record. The data from the transponder is read by a sensor which sends the information on the transponder to a computer that interprets the data.
RFID technology is rapidly becoming pervasive throughout all facets of our society. RFID is being used by the transportation industry to collect tolls and fares, by retailers to track products, and by animal control professionals to identify pets. The United States has begun to issue Electronic Passports which look the same as regular passports, but which also have an RFID tag that stores and transmits the information that is on the photo page of the passport. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved a human-implantable RFID that can provide medical professionals with a patient's complete medical record.
Libraries have been leaders in the implementation of RFID technology. The system that libraries use streamlines the process of circulating library materials because books are charged and desensitized at the same time. The information for each item can be read more quickly than traditional barcodes can be scanned. In fact, several items in a stack can be read at the same time and as much as two or three feet away, even through a book bag. Proponents believe that RFID may also reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries by staff because items don't need to be opened or turned in a certain direction to be scanned. RFID also simplifies the process for patrons in libraries that use patron self-checkout. Libraries with RFID technology can take an inventory without taking the books or other materials off the shelves, and in the process lost or misplaced items can be identified.
Despite RFID's benefits, there are concerns that the use of RFID is a threat to people's privacy. Some are worried that it might enable the government to find out the names of those who have checked out books on a particular topic. But, if the tag in a library book includes only the unique number that was previously contained on the barcode, then anyone with an RFID reader would only have access to that number. Without access to the library's automation system, that number would not identify either the name of the book or the name of the person to whom the book is checked out. To alleviate these concerns, the American Library Association (ALA) has adopted the following "RFID Privacy Principles:"
All 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 shall:
Implement and enforce an up-to-date organizational privacy policy that gives notice and full disclosure as to the use, terms of use, and any change in the terms of use for data collected via new technologies and processes, including RFID.

  • Ensure that no personal information is recorded on RFID tags which, however, may contain a variety of transactional data.
  • Protect data by reasonable security safeguards against interpretation by any unauthorized third party.
  • Comply with relevant federal, state, and local laws as well as industry best practices and policies.
  • Ensure that the four principles outlined above must be verifiable by an independent audit.
For more information, go to the RFID page on ALA's Web site:
Bonnie Oldham
Pride, Passion, Promise: Experience Our Jesuit Tradition