When was the last time you used your local library? While most people access the web at home or at work, even in today’s digital world libraries have unique advantages over the ever-growing tide of internet data.
Looking to the libraries of the future, the Aspen Institute’s excellent report ‘Rising to the Challenge’ outlines some of them. Libraries are trusted by their local community. They help tackle social inequalities, and are often the only free access millions of people have to the internet. They give young people a creative learning environment after school. They help people find jobs, access government and local services and health resources, and carry on with their lifelong learning. They offer different media to help people learn the way that suits them best: text, data, audio or video.
Most of all, libraries offer space – physical space. I am myself a member of several internet forums which at best offer their members one or two live events a year for presentations and exhibitions. Public Libraries on the other hand offer their members live events every day. The shelves form a constant exhibition, and a theatre in the same building can serve for novelist readings and other presentations.
Librarians are another unique resource, but too often they spend their time checking books in and out, and making sure that the books on the shelves match the library’s inventory. Librarians’ time is valuable, and we need to make best use of it.
People often need help navigating the library access systems and – when you’re studying – you often need expert knowledge to even know what questions to ask. You want to spend your time on study or enjoyment rather than queuing or searching through huge amounts of data for what you need.
New technology is helping with this, and we’ll for example be seeing more Radio-Frequency Identification tags appearing in library books and other media. RFID can save time from the moment you enter the library by automating the book and media return handling. It can exist alongside barcodes, but reads much faster – up to 60 different tags/second.
RFID doesn’t need line of sight, and has high immunity to dirt and other obscuring layers. You can read the tags over a greater distance than barcodes, and data on the tag can be changed or updated. RFID tags are less vulnerable to damage because they are not printed on paper, and don’t need to be fixed to the outside of an item. There’s none of the multiple swipes that you often come across with barcodes.
Combined with automated materials handling systems, RFID can also help to get media back onto the shelves faster and more accurately. Some libraries hold millions of books, CDs, DVDs and videos and it is a phenomenal challenge for librarians to keep track of them all. Automated systems can accept returns, update your account, and sort the items to go back on the shelves. Some libraries are reporting a factor four shorter time back to shelf – which is where you need them to be. Hand-held readers can scan shelves for misplaced books, and some libraries have found thousands of dollars worth of “lost” items with RFID shelf management programs.
Now a stable technology with open architectures, RFID is seeing exciting new developments. The latest is Near Field Communication. NFC-enabled devices can for example download book titles straight to your phone, and link to web pages with more information (more below).
RFID readers have an IC that produces an alternating current and an antenna that converts it into a magnetic field. That is picked up by the tag’s antenna, which resonates to give enough power to bounce back an encoded identifier number (which can be the same as the existing barcode ID number) so the tags don’t need a battery.
NXP’s SLIX RFID chip family is already in use at over 5000 public and university libraries around the world, and we’ve recently introduced a backwards compatible successor, SLIX 2. This makes for 50% faster inventory scanning, one of the most time consuming library jobs. Instead of aiming and scanning book by book with barcode inventory scanning – with SLIX 2 you just swipe over the shelf.
The new ICs make book searches and inventory scanning even faster and more accurate. Shelf contents are immediately updated, so shelf accuracy is significantly improved. The ICs have extra memory for URLs with additional media information.
That has benefits, too, particularly when combined with Near Field Communication.
Most of today’s smartphones offer NFC, and SLIX 2 now lets you use it to watch movie trailers and check author bios, book reviews.
With NFC, the physical book on the shelf guides you to the related content on the internet. No need to type in the web address. Just tap your phone on the book’s SLIX 2 label and the phone’s library app will automatically open the associated web page. It works with zero clicks, and without having to use the phone’s camera to scan a barcode. Just tap a movie DVD to watch the trailer. Or tap a book to be guided to a blog space of reviews. The tag’s memory is segmented, with separate access conditions and password protection where needed.
Being supported by the widely available NFC infrastructure helps SLIX 2 to displace barcodes in many other applications for identifying objects and automatically updating inventory. SLIX 2 can be used for managing medical records, for example, tracking documents, ticketing and authorized service monitoring.
Don’t underestimate the physical benefits of libraries. Seeing a picture of a book on the web doesn’t compare with physically holding that book in your hand – much like watching movies about all the nice places in the world doesn’t compare to actually going on holiday.
To keep our Public Libraries, we need to use them. Next time you are going past your local library, walk in.