RFID streamlines library’s checkouts and returns

William & Mary Libraries is tackling a project this summer to make it easier than ever to check out books.

David Morales, head of circulation, and Libby McDaniel, head of cataloging & metadata, and their teams are taking the reins on equipping every book in the Libraries’ collection with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags.

RFID tags are encoded with digital data that are captured by an antenna via radio waves.

The new technology will give users the autonomy to self-checkout materials they need at a much faster rate.

“This project will improve access to the collection and make it faster and easier for our patrons to checkout materials they need,” Morales said.

Student assistant implementing RFID Tags on Swem Library books.

With close to a million print books in the Libraries’ system, it will be a tall task to tag each one before the fall semester begins. The process is a tedious one, but accuracy is important as the RFID tags need to match their book’s barcode.

To handle the work, a mix of student assistants and summer temporary workers have been brought on board.  Morales is hoping that this 25-person team can complete the vast majority of the project by the end of summer. 

“I was doing the math and we would have to tag around 4500 to 5000 books a day to get almost all the work done by the start of the fall,” Morales said. “It’s a strong chance the project continues through the upcoming semester, and we won’t fully employ the RFIDs readers and self-check stations until everything is in place.”

Despite RFID technology being available for decades, it has only been used in the library sphere for the last 10 years or so. The world of libraries was able to take advantage of the innovation after the price of tags and associated equipment became less costly.

It was perfect timing for W&M Libraries as the administration team was looking for solutions for low-contact services during the pandemic. Lisa Nickel, associate dean of research & public services, said the original plan was to use RFID technology to create a self-service reserve collection.

However, as the plans to integrate the technology developed it became clear it would be more effective in the long run to tag every book in the Libraries.

“After the initial implementation, RFID will allow us to redeploy our staff to important tasks that require higher level human interaction and critical thinking,” Nickel said. “Some of the most time-consuming tasks – check-ins, checkouts, searching for holds or lost items, and shelf management – can be fully or partially automated with RFID.”