Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

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Radio Frequency Identification (RFID, for short) is a technology used for tracking and identification of objects in many areas of commerce, shipping, manufacturing, and, beginning in the late 1990's, in the circulation and inventory processes of libraries, and is useful for security applications, as well.

RFID is similar to barcode technology in that it employs coded labels to communicate information about a specific item (a library book or DVD, for instance) to a central server. However, since RFID uses radio frequencies to communicate with items' attendant labels rather than scanning barcodes with a laser, the RFID reader does not require a direct line of sight to the label to read it, can read multiple items at once, and can read through physical tissue such as a book cover or DVD case.

Circulation Advantages of RFID


RFID technology's ability to read ID tags regardless of position or orientation as well as detect signals through physical materials is particularly advantageous for library circulation processes. Since several items can be read at once, checkout procedures can be accomplished much more rapidly than with barcode technology, which requires that each item be handled individually. For these same reasons, patrons can accomplish self-checkout much more efficiently, as well.

Implementation of RFID in libraries generally leads to greatly-reduced queues at the checkout counter, enhanced customer service, and less repetitive strain injuries for library staff [1]. A study commissioned by the San Francisco Public Library anticipated a substantial reduction in risky, repetitive motions associated with circulation such as lifting, reaching and grasping as a result of its RFID implementation [2].


RFID can be equally advantageous for checkin processes, as well. In addition to being able to check in multiple items simultaneously, RFID readers can be affixed to book return slots, effectively checking in items as they pass through the slot. RFID can further streamline checkin when used in conjunction with an automated materials handling (AMH) system. A conveyor carries items past an RFID reader, which checks them in and then sorts them by category into bins or onto carts, eliminating the need for staff to handle items until the fine-sorting step of the process.

The time saving potential of an RFID implementation can be substantial; an Australian library reported an 80% reduction in time spent on circulation procedures by staff after RFID was implemented [3].


1. Erwin, Emmit and Christian Kern. 2005. Radio frequency identification in libraries. Australaisian Public Libraries and Information Services 18(1) (March): 20-28.

2. Smart, Laura J. 2004. Making sense of RFID. Library Journal NetConnect 129 (Fall): 4-14.

3. Carp, Douglas, Donald Leslie and James Lichtenberg. 2004. Tiny trackers: use of RFID by libraries and booksellers. Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom 53(5): 169, 206-215.