Virginia Beach sees RFID payoff

Some observers may think it's an unlikely business proposition, but David Sullivan believes his city's libraries will see a return on investment for radio frequency identification tags -- it's just a matter of time.

"Public libraries do not think about" return on investment, said Sullivan, chief information officer for Virginia Beach, Va. "Public libraries are free."

Yet he said the Virginia Beach Public Library system's $1.5 million RFID program will pay for itself in three to four years. He spoke March 1 at the Wireless/RFID Conference and Exhibition sponsored by FCW Events. Each year, 200,000 patrons throughout the city check out more than 800,000 items at the library system's nine branches.

Sullivan convinced city officials to pay for 50-cent RFID tags for every book, video, CD and audiotape in the new Oceanfront Area Library. During the next two years, they will use RFID tags at all libraries. The devices go inside books and replace bar code stickers, which are easily damaged.

Sullivan said the tags have increased returns, freed librarians from repetitive tasks and doubled checkout speed. And librarians no longer have to visually scan shelves for misplaced books -- they can just wave a wand across a shelf to detect the missing item.

In October, the Oceanfront Area Library opened two self-service checkout stations that can read RFID tags. A staff member sits between the stations, responding to information requests, checking out some books and scheduling library classes. Patrons slide their library cards into a slot and place their books onto a rectangular mat. The system can read as many as 16 items at a time.

Despite concerns, adding the RFID tags did not result in any employee layoffs, although the technology did reduce the need for part-time workers and new hires, Sullivan said. Inserting the tags is labor-intensive, but now librarians spend more time telling stories instead of doing manual tasks.

"The more time you can get them in front of small children to encourage reading, the bigger the social payoff," Sullivan said.

The tags work as anti-theft devices, and the self-service machines protect readers' privacy. "You don't keep records of who has what books," Sullivan said. "You only keep track of the length of the transaction. You're not keeping the record to keep track of what patrons read."

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