Neil Gaiman Envisions a Future With Libraries

The wild and wacky world of the RFID gates gets ever stranger.

The short version is that a technician will be in today to attempt to finish the work last week’s technician began. The gates have some tracking ability but still do not alarm when a book passes through them. This after the new part we received was installed and the gear tested remotely by one of their better developers.

The long version is that I got one of the vendor’s troubleshooters to remotely log in to the gate reader. There is a possibility the gates need to be replaced. There is a possibility that our gate management software needs to be replaced. It is definite that a number of applications we’ve been running are no longer supported by the vendor. (The CircControl app we’ve been using is among these. Nice of them to tell us, huh?)

I’ve set up an appointment for them to log in with the developer that we’ve been regularly communicating with on problems concerning the gates, and they will do a complete test of everything we have installed.

There are days when I question why I bother to come to work.

In the meantime, this wonderful essay by Neil Gaiman on the future of libraries has been making the rounds of my social media networks. It deserves your full attention. Especially this bit:

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

His response: Bah! There are no bad books, there is nothing below one’s reading level, and there is no book that cannot be taught as an act of literary statement.

Read fiction. Read it all. Enjoy every moment. Encourage others to do that same.

On the days I wonder why I bother, this is why I keep showing up.

Read the whole thing here.

Monday Cancelled Due to RFID Fail

Our RFID system is a bit of Hell in a small package. When it works properly, which just lately has been less and less often, it acts like an automated kiosk combined with a robotic guard dog.

The gates guard the entrance to the library; they are connected to the internet with an Ethernet cable. Matching gate tracking software supplied by the vendor and installed on our circ PC tracks comings and goings. If a bo0ok is properly checked out via the circ computers, the gate reads an active tag and doesn’t go off. If the tag was improperly scanned or something similar, it reads an inactive tag and goes off.

This is standard stuff. Or, it should be.

Two weeks ago, the gates started sounding and nothing would make them stop. We pulled out the plug and the gates stopped, but when we plugged them back in five minutes later, they refused to go off for any reason.

E-mails were written, phone calls were made. A new gate part was sent over. A tech guy was sent over this morning to install it. I’ve worked with the vendor’s tech staff for three years and they know their stuff.

But Gate Guy doesn’t work for the gate vendor–he’s a subcontractor. So now that he’s here, he needs to get instructions from the vendor. That takes three phone calls, the draining of his cell phone battery and finally, a conversation with the guy at the vendor I generally talk to for gate related issues anyway. Finally, this is lower Manhattan and Gate Guy has the equipment truck with him, but his parking spot runs out at noon and he needs to find another one.

Finally, Gate Guy has found out that the part the vendor sent over as a replacement is not the same part which is inside the gate.


I’ll let you know.


Update: 3.44pm

Better news. The gates now have limited functionality, in that they can see (by way of the gate tracker software) tagged objects nearby, but still can’t sound the alarm.  That means another visit by another Gate Guy . . . kill me. Please.

New RFID Standard Raises Prospects for Interoperability

Interoperability is a word that is prized by library staff and reviled by online security managers.

It suggests that different devices should work together as the sum of a wide variety of parts, which produces a favorable outcome for the user. This is the logic behind cloud computing, smart televisions, and wide area networks. Apps exist on multiple platforms simultaneously, swapping data and metadata as needed.

To a security manager, each additional point of access is actually an open window into that app’s data. With each new device added to the network, another opportunity for mischief appears. A particular desktop PC might be locked down tight, but all it takes is a shared access between that machine and an undefended synched mobile device, and hey, someone has access to your stuff. This happens.

Our problem at MCNY has been what to do with our RFID equipment.

We started implementing our RFID plan several years ago, and we had problems. The gates were expensive and were not immediately compatible with our intranet.  The tags were expensive unless we bought in quantity. The gates did not work as the sales team had promised. In fact, what they told us–that the gates could read a tag several feet away–was untrue.  The SIPCHK account we plugged into our ILS worked only after considerable tweaking by our ILS vendor. The vendor’s conversion and circulation control software have shifted their design from the original data models we utilized. Then the tags’ physical design changed. Then the vendor merged with another company and everything changed again.

It’s not a problem that is limited to us, either:

RFID (radio frequency identification) tags have been used in libraries since 1999, when the National Library of Singapore installed the first system. RFID tags, like barcodes, are used to uniquely identify library material. A barcode tag has the barcode number imprinted on the tag, and the barcode scanner reads that number using optical technology. With RFID, much more information can be stored on the tag, and the tag data is read via radio technology instead of optical technology. Whereas barcode scanners require line of sight to operate, RFID readers just need to be able to detect the tag. This means the reader needs to be within 18 to 20 inches of the tag, but the tag need not be visible (e.g., it can be inside the book).

Today, RFID spending exceeds $5.85 billion worldwide, and the technology is used in virtually every industry. However, RFID adoption in libraries has not seen this type of explosion. NXP, manufacturer of the integrated circuits that are part of nearly every library RFID tag, reports that some 3,000 libraries worldwide have implemented RFID. So, while libraries were among the first to get involved with RFID, libraries haven’t gone very far with it since 2003.

In fact, most of the library RFID components (tags, readers, software) are essentially the same today as they were in 2003. There have been some improvements in the quality of the products offered, but there isn’t much difference when it comes to functionality. The vendors providing RFID solutions are also largely the same, although some of the smaller players have disappeared and some have merged.

After many months of work we are finally nearing the end of this project. Still, now that we have achieved a certain amount of backwards compatibility, the question remains: what happens going forward? If we buy new gates in ten years will they work with the existing tags and software?

The BIC Library Communications Framework, if widely implemented by equipment vendors, would help resolve this problem. Definitely a positive development that bears watching.

Ten Things I Care About More Than The 2012 Olympics

Lara and I are heading to Vermont for two weeks on the 2nd. (I’ll post pics and tidbits to my Facebook and Twitter accounts along the way.)

My ribs hurt. That’s what happens when you try to be funny in a dark movie theater and fall into the seat the wrong way. I suffer for my art.

A senior paraprofessional here has been out for a month on medical leave. Productivity has doubled in her absence. No, I am not kidding. I wish I were.

Our RFID Tagging/Weeding/Inventory project is more than half done. We’ve weeded something like 3,000 books and tagged roughly 15,000 books. The Director is very pleased. He suggested that Emma and I write an article about the project. I’ll let you know what happens with that.

Our book budget looks like it will not be cut before the end of the year.

I have a full cart of donated books to catalog and process before I leave on Thursday.

I have a cash receipts balance sheet to finish before tomorrow.

The new RFID tagging station was successfully installed on our third Circ desk PC. Now all I have to do is get IT to make the use of the platform available for all user accounts on the PC.

I opened the library today at 9.00 as usual. The first student who walked in gave me a big smile and said “Good morning.” Just like that. Awesome.

Finally: a time delay on all broadcasts from London, NBC? Really?

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