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With the Radio On

Tired of being a long-term lending library, our pioneering commentator tries book binding using RFID

I have an ongoing problem of losing books I've lent to friends, or as I now refer to them, former friends.

I've been keenly following the developments in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags and decided this is just the thing to solve my wayward book problem. It can also keep track of book locations for when members of my family RETURN A BOOK TO THE WRONG SHELF! (I'm not obsessive, I'm well organized.)

I initially bought 200 passive tags, stuck them onto the spine of my books then scanned them. Success. I can identify each book with the reader. Actually I have to scan them now as the tag covers up the title, but it's only a minor inconvenience. The major inconvenience emerged when, after labelling the first 100 books, I realized how long it would take and how much it would cost to label all 4000 books in our collection.

At this point, the Boss requested to see my business plan, though not in those words. I outlined the fiscal benefits of reducing stock loss, but she countered that my investment in RFID tags and readers was greater than any book replacement costs, and that the hours affixing tags could be more profitably spent building that bookshelf I promised last year and putting our piles of books into it. I described the improved tracking benefits, having already uncovered half a dozen books I didn't know we had. She was unimpressed, saying I obviously didn't need them, and perhaps I should spend less time tracking books and more time reading them.

Reluctantly she agreed to let me complete a trial with the tags I'd bought. As people increasingly borrow our DVDs, I then bought more tags to label those. My original book tags are Class 0, but the DVD tags are Class 0+, so I had to buy a new reader to read the DVD tags. Its RF energy interfered with my Class 0 reader, so I had to replace them both with one that handled Classes 0, 0+ and 1. Finally, however, the Kirkham Library Electronic Product Tracking Option (KLEPTO) was up and running.

I just got it bedded in when Class 2 Generation 2 was announced. I'm not sure what "RFID - The Next Generation" includes, but I suspect it means my new equipment is already obsolete.

There have been some implementation issues. Initially, I wanted to use RFID to track where my books had gone, but the signal is so weak that, short of cruising inner city streets with a dash-mounted reader, my lost books with lost friends remain lost.

When a visiting family left, each carrying their own tagged book, the RFID reader at the front door couldn't pick up all the tags. It also had trouble when a couple left with not only DVDs of Shrek 2 and The Princess Bride but also the cask of Spatlese Lexia they'd brought in the mistaken belief we'd regard it as wine. As RFID signals get absorbed by liquid, the Spatlese effectively blocked the tags. Still, it's worth the price of 2 DVDs not to have to drink cask wine.

I tried taking a lead from Wal-Mart by mandating my supplier stick RFID tags to all books I'm likely to buy. The bookshop owner emphatically declined, suggesting where he'd stick one tag unless I left his shop.

Nevertheless, once the standards are set and prices drop to something I can afford, I plan to extend my KLEPTO trial to all books and DVDs. The Boss formulated an alternate plan, saying she's sourced her own library tracking system which is standardized, portable, low power usage, common user interface and a lower cost than RFID. She handed me a notepad and biro.

Sometimes I don't think she understands the benefit of technology.

Bruce Kirkham is a veteran IT professional specializing in leading-edge technologies and scepticism, who views the IT industry not so much as "dot com" as "dot comedy"

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