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3M Announces Major New Library Technology System
Posted On November 15, 1999
3M Library Systems made the formal announcement of its new Digital Identification System via an international Webcast on November 10. The company had been hinting about this technology last summer, and showed it to selected members of the media in a private area of its booth at ALA's Annual Conference in late June. Now it has finally been unveiled to the world. "3M expects this new product line to revolutionize how people use their libraries," said John Yorkovich, 3M's digital technologies marketing manager, who was featured in the live Webcast.

The 3M Digital Identification System is a group of seven products used together to identify, track, and secure library materials. It consists of the 3M Digital Identification Tag (a smart label with a tiny radio frequency transponder), the 3M Conversion Station (it codes the labels), the 3M SelfCheck System (existing technology that lets patrons check out their own materials), the 3M Staff Workstation (for behind-the-counter use), a Book Drop (which automatically checks items in and resensitizes them), an optional Sorter (which sorts materials and funnels them to bins according to where they sit in the library), and the 3M Digital Library Assistant (a handheld scanner for work in the stacks).

Here's the idea: Every circulating item in a collection (books, tapes, CDs, videos, etc.) gets its own coded smart tag that contains all the vital bibliographic information. Library users can check these items out themselves on the SelfCheck System, and it's easy for them because this radio frequency technology does not require the tag to be perfectly lined up under a laser light in order to read it. In fact, the tag is put inside an item's cover, and the patron doesn't even have to see it. So the SelfCheck system checks an item out, desensitizes the security strip, and prints out a receipt with the due date. (Since the radio frequency tag is not a foolproof security device, Tattle-Tape is still the main security check.) When the user brings the item back, it is put into the Book Drop/Sorter, which reads the smart tag again, prints a customer receipt, checks the item in, resensitizes it, sorts it according to where it belongs in the building, and puts it on a conveyor belt that carries it toward a bin full of items headed for the same area. You can instantly see why a system like this will save librarians time by doing the "everyday" work for them. It can also save on repetitive motions that can result in injuries to the hands, wrists, and arms.

And speaking of taking care of mundane tasks, there's more. The 3M Digital Library Assistant is a handheld scanner designed to work in the stacks and to simplify everyone's least-favorite types of tasks—shelfreading, inventory, and finding misplaced items. This device can be programmed with the information from a missing or misplaced item, and can then be waved over rows of books quickly, emitting an audible and visual signal when it scans the tag of the missing item. Conversely, it can scan groups of items and then indicate what's missing for inventory needs. Even more helpful is its capability to measure in-house usage. Just wave it over a table full of items left out by users before you reshelve them and it will keep this valuable statistic that was nearly impossible to measure before.

The Digital Identification System is alive and running at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV), which has been serving as the main testing site. Ken Marks, dean of libraries there, also took part in the Webcast, commenting that students, faculty, and staff have taken to the system quickly since they began using it in early August. He said it released his staff from having to do the unchallenging tasks that come with their jobs. It also gave them more time to deal with patrons, aided in data collection, and got books back on the shelves faster.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is not new, and has been used for years already for things like tracking luggage and packages. But now 3M has customized its capabilities to benefit libraries.

Of course, the two biggest questions remaining are what it will cost and how it can actually be implemented. In the Webcast, 3M's Yorkovich couldn't answer those questions definitively, saying that every library will require a different customized plan, so it would be impossible to list the steps to implementation or to give their costs. Also, prices have not been set for all the components yet. However, as more and more of those types of questions came in from the viewing audience, he went so far as to say these things: For libraries that want to sign on, 3M will provide the conversion stations (which code the RFID tags) and provide customized, step-by-step plans. He suggested starting to code new items as they were processed, and converting others over as time allowed. "3M is committed to providing a clear migration path" to get customers going, he stated.

As for costs, they would vary widely, depending on the size of collection, circulation numbers, and physical layout of any given library. (For instance, a library with little staff space might buy all system components except the sorter/conveyor belt.) When pressed, Yorkovich could only provide a price for the RFID tags, which he said would cost about $1 each. However, he was quick to point out that they should last 15-20 years, so the cost per year might be as little as 5 cents per tagged item. He did say that 3M would do a specialized estimate for each library when it was ready for one.

Yorkovich also mentioned that, to help the process further, 3M was starting to talk with booksellers like Baker & Taylor about forming partnerships to tag items on the front end to simplify the process and to make its use more widespread.

So when will all this miracle technology be available? The testing on most components is nearly complete at UNLV. The Book Drop/Sorter is still in development. Also still on the drawing board is another function for the handheld scanner, which would allow it to help with weeding—you could wave it over shelves and get a signal when you hit an item that had not circulated within a given time period. The company says that the system should be available in mid-2000.

For more information, you can go to to view news or the full Webcast, which has been archived online, and to see a number of pictures of the system components.

Kathy Miller is the former editor-in-chief of Computers in Libraries magazine and the current editor of Marketing Library Services newsletter.

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