Going high-tech in the libraries: RFID project nears completion

By Jenna Massey ‘24

A crew of students and staff worked hard to tag over one million books at the campus libraries.

This winter marked the substantial completion of William & Mary Libraries’ RFID implementation project. The project, which began in the summer of 2021, installed Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags in each of the Libraries’ approximately one million books. RFID tags allow patrons to quickly check out multiple books at once at a self-check machine.

There are many behind-the-scenes benefits to using RFID technology for library collections.

“The system allows us greater flexibility in managing our collection: inventories can now be performed quickly and efficiently; missing book searches and spot checks can be done much more easily. All of this ultimately frees up staff time to concentrate on more pressing needs,” said David Morales, head of circulation at Swem Library.

The project was completed with significant assistance from a team of students and temporary workers, most of whom devoted much of their summer vacation to, what Morales described as, the “hard, physical and dusty” work required by the installation process. Almost every member of the RFID team had to overcome a significant learning curve at the beginning of the process. They had to learn how to position individual tags so adjacent books could be read as separate objects, and often had to improvise workarounds to minor technical issues.

“[It] took a while before we consistently figured out how to prevent [errors], but it felt really good to overcome these challenges,” said Diego Jimenez ’23, a member of the student team.

Beyond the satisfaction gained by mastering the new technology, it seems the challenges initially presented by the installation process served to bond the student workers in the early stages of the project.

“We had pizza parties, we shared book recommendations, we listened to crime podcasts together, and just generally had a fun time!” said Alex Luck ’23.

The project also taught its workers quite a bit about the inner workings of – and resources available through – W&M Libraries. 

“You wouldn’t really realize that a library had THIS MANY books until you went over them one by one,” writes Bruce Xiao ’25.

Many other student testimonies echoed Xiao’s sentiment.

“My favorite [part of the project] was the variety of materials we were exposed to,” writes MM Lehmkuhler ’23. Books with topics like “moth diversity, Javanese epics, [and] lesbian comics” were just a few of the materials Lehmkuhler was exposed to during her time working on the installation.

The RFID project, which was funded by the university’s Higher Education Equipment Trust Fund, was completed in Swem Library, Wolf Law Library, the Chemistry Reading Room, Physics Library, Learning Resource Center in the School of Education, and the McLeod Business Library prior to the start of the spring 2023 semester. Tag installation is still underway at the Music Library and Hargis Library at VIMS, though the projects are on track to be completed soon.