Top tips for carrying out a successful RFID inventory

This summer, we carried out the first RFID inventory of the open-shelf collections at St Hugh’s College Library.  Here’s a summary of what we learned from the process.  We used kit from Bibliotheca, but most of this will apply to any RFID system.

The RFID wand

The hand-held RFID wand is also called the RFID reader, HHT or hand-held unit.  It has 2 cables: one USB cable for connecting to a computer and a power cable for charging.

To charge the wand, switch it off, place it in the cradle and plug it in.  A red light shows on the transformer, and this turns green when the wand is charged.

Using the wand in inventory mode

Switch on the wand and select ‘Inventory’ from the menu.  Press the button on the back of the wand to put the wand in scanning mode.  The icon on the screen will show an animation of blue moving dots, showing that the wand is ready to read tags

Having the wand in this mode is draining on the battery, and it will turn itself off from this mode if it hasn’t read any tags for a while.  It is important to keep an eye on the icon in the top right corner of the screen to make sure it is still in scanning mode when you are trying to read tags.  If you don’t need to use the wand in scanning mode for a period, disable scanning mode by pressing the button on the back of the wand.

The inventory process

  1. With ‘Inventory’ selected and with the wand in scanning mode, the procedure is to move the wand slowly past each shelf to allow it to read all the tags
  2. Data from the wand is synced to your computer at regular intervals
  3. This data is sent to the library management system support team, who add a recent date to the ‘last inventory’ field of all the items whose tags were detected
  4. The total library holdings are then compared with the tags that were picked up, to identify and items on the catalogue whose tags were not picked up

Items whose barcodes are not picked up may be:

  • Added to a shelf-checking list to be searched for and see if perhaps they were missed in the main inventory.  If they are found, their inventory date is updated
  • Marked as ‘missing’ in the hope that they may re-appear in the next inventory or shelf-check
  • Identified as having been on loan at the time of the inventory
  • Deleted from the catalogue – this usually happens if an item has not been found in two successive inventories and was not borrowed at any point in between

Practice your technique

It is important to practice your technique before using the wand for gathering inventory data.

When performing an inventory, it is important to pick up the tag of every item in the library in order to have a complete and correct record of our stock.  See the ‘possible pitfalls’ list of things that can go wrong!  By practicing your technique before embarking on the full inventory, you can learn to work around these pitfalls and carry out the inventory smoothly.

Before scanning a shelf of items, count how many items there are on the shelf.  Scan the items, see the light flashing on the wand when it picks up tags and the total tags it has read.  Does the total number of tags read on the wand match the number of items on the shelf?

Question: Why might it have picked up more tags?  Why might it have read fewer? (answer below)

Once you have picked up the tags of all the items in one area, move to a different area and practice the speed at which you move the wand along the shelf.

You could try counting the books in your head as you move along the shelf, and compare this number with how many tags the wand has read.  Alternatively, you could use paper slips to mark out numbers of books in 50s or 100s to check that you’re keeping track.

As you practice, you will gain confidence in holding the wand at the correct angle and moving at a speed which allows all the tags to be picked up.

Possible pitfalls

Tag masking – just like on the self-service kiosk, if two tags on different items are too close together, one can mask the other and prevent it from being read.  Our method of attaching tags in 3 different positions along the spine helps to reduce this, but may not eliminate masking entirely

The shape of the RFID field generated by the wand – like the security gates, which can detect tags within 50-100cm of the gates in 360°, the wand may pick up tags from shelves above and below the one you’re concentrating on

Metal shelving – this can interfere with the RFID field and therefore the wand’s ability to read tags.  Take extra care when working in the vicinity of metal shelving to ensure that all tags have been read

Scanning mode – the wand disables scanning mode if it hasn’t picked up tags for a short while, so be sure to check that it is in scanning mode when you’re trying to pick up tags

Battery life – make sure the wand is charging on the cradle when it’s not being used to pick up tags.  It will also be left on charge overnight.  Having the wand charged and ready to go will help us carry out the inventory on time

Crashing – unfortunately, the software on the wand is not infallible.  If it crashes, you may lose all the tags picked up since the wand last synced to a computer.  Aim for short (about an hour) sessions and sync after each one.  Swearing loudly may help overcome your frustration when this happens – just do it where no-one else can hear you J

Use a piece of coloured card or paper to indicate where your scanning session started and finished.  This will help every keep track of the progress of the inventory.  Also, if the software crashes and loses your data, you’ll know where you need to go back to in order to scan those tags again

Returned items

These need to be inventoried too!

All returned items must be scanned with the wand before being re-shelved.  Scan all items in the return bins each morning, and re-shelve the items promptly after they’ve been scanned.

It won’t matter if the same item is scanned twice (on return and again on its ‘home’ shelf) – duplicates can be deleted when the full set of data is sent to the library management system support team.

However, all returned items must be scanned in case they are re-shelved in an area that has already been scanned, otherwise they won’t be recorded on the inventory.

Risk assessment

The wand is lightweight and designed to be held safely for extended periods.

When scanning items, ensure that you use good posture and move your body close to the area you’re scanning rather than reaching too far from a fixed position.

If your arm feels tired, try alternating which hand you use to hold the wand.  If you experience any pain or discomfort, let your supervisor know immediately.

Use a kick-step to help you scan items on the higher shelves.

Bring the wand back to your desk for syncing every hour or so, and this will also give you a rest while the data is transferred.

Answer to question above: more tags picked up because the RFID field is mushroom-shaped, and may have picked up tags in items above, below or behind the shelf you’re scanning.  Fewer tags picked up because of tag masking, RFID tags removed from the items (vandalism?)

Progress to date

Following a team training session on how to use the wand, Louise and Nora each had time to practice using the wand on their own.  After this trial run, I divided the library in half and they each had up to 6 working days to complete the full stock check of their half of the library.  Both of them completed this work in a shorter time period, and we’re now up to the stage of manually checking the shelves for items whose tags weren’t picked up by the wand.  When term begins again in two weeks’ time, I’m aiming to have updated the catalogue records to indicate any items which are missing (hopefully, there won’t be many!).

Lessons learned

After the full run, Nora and Louise reflected on their experiences of the process, and their observations are included here with their permission.


  • The scanner picks up books more easily when shelves are not completely full; it’s sometimes useful to take out the first few books, scan them, then scan the rest of the shelf, pushing the books along as you scan.
  • The scanner picks up different books depending on the direction it is moved in; it’s often worth scanning right to left, then left to right, keeping the scanner at a slight angle, to pick up the most books.
  • On metal shelves especially, the scanner often won’t pick up the first and last books on the shelf – if you’re missing some, try these first – pulling them away from the sides of the shelf.
  • Sometimes the battery charging light will flash orange – not sure if this means that the battery is low, but our machine continued to work for at least an hour once the light appeared.
  • Often just before the wand crashes it begins to work more slowly and becomes much less sensitive – if it only picks up half or less of the shelf, it’s probably a good idea to sync the wand just in case.
  • If the wand crashes, a warm or cold reset might help; and sometimes leaving it to charge for a few minutes can help it work more effectively.
  • If it crashes consistently, it may need a software update.


I have undertaken traditional library inventories before, where each book had to be taken from the shelves in order to scan the barcode, and using the RFID reader is a small revolution in comparison.  The RFID reader is very easy to use and, for most of the time, you don’t even need to move books from the shelves.

I was responsible for doing the inventory on the first floor. Six days were allocated to do the task and, while this would have taken longer with the older inventory system, I soon realised that my job was going to be easier and faster. Would I even add the word fun here?!

Things I’ve learned from this first experience:

  • It is a good idea to do a trial run beforehand. This helped me to get used to the RFID reader, to ask questions and point out potential difficulties and to be more confident in using the RFID wand.  I felt that I was ready to do the inventory after the trial run.
  • Decide on a strategy before doing the inventory and be flexible during the process.  I organised my week by dividing time between inventory and non-inventory jobs.  I found that this helped me to keep on top of my other jobs and to not get bored of the inventory.  Also, at first, I was doing the inventory up to a certain number of books before coming back to the office to download the data into the computer. As the week passed, I felt more confident and I decided that I could increase the number of books to scan. As a result of that, I found that the process became faster and I was able to finish the inventory before the deadline.
  • I always made sure that every time I came back to the office, I was charging the wand for a little while.
  • Check the room before starting the inventory and make appropriate arrangements if necessary. For example, before starting the inventory in the Law library, I first assessed the room and I soon realised that I would not be able to reach the top shelves. I  asked my colleague if she could help me with that and we then arranged a mutually convenient time. Solving potential problems beforehand will save you time when doing the inventory.
  • Tip: when a shelf is overcrowded with books, I found that moving the books slightly from side to side made it easier to pick up the books’ tags.

Learning spaces at the University of Warwick Library

I recently visited the University of Warwick to find out about their use of space in the library.  Related posts:

Thanks to Robin Green, Antony Brewerton, Helen Curtis, Emma Cragg, Fiona Colligan, Becky Woolley and everyone else who gave their time to chat with me and made me feel welcome.

On arrival at the Library, the signage is clear and welcoming.

Know Your Zone

It tells me where I am, where everything is and what the basic library rules are.

There are plasma screens at several points in the Library, and they tell me what’s happening today.

Plasma screen

I like this notice because it tells me where else I can work, rather than just announcing the disruption.

There is RFID self-issue, and also self-return with a sorting system:

RFID self-return sorting machine

When an item is returned, the machine reads the item’s RFID tag, obtains its shelfmark from the LMS and then directs the item into a book bin according to its destination (e.g. third floor, short loan collection, DVD).

The library has electronic rolling stack, which I had never seen before!

Electronic rolling stack

There was an informal seating area with a variety of newspapers for students to browse.

Newspaper display unit

Seeing bookmoves and reclassification projects in progress was a comforting reminder that many other academic libraries spend their summers doing this, not just at my workplace!

I liked the use of spare wall space (especially in stairwells) to display art – it made the building feel thoughtful as well as functional, and reminded me of the pursuit of education as a holistic, lifelong activity as well as for a focused, specific purpose such as a degree course.

DVDs and CD-ROMs now available in the library!

From today, members of St Hugh’s College Library will be able to borrow DVDs and CD-ROMs.
DVDs catalogued, classified and ready to goUntil December 2010, the college JCR (Junior Common Room, or undergraduate student body) had a collection of films on DVD which they kept in a student’s bedroom and administered their own system for keeping track of loans.

Over the Christmas vacation, the JCR’s DVDs were brought to me for cataloguing and from today, the collection is available for loan.  A maximum of 3 DVDs may be borrowed at once, and the loan period is 3 days.

Since the installation of the RFID security and stock management system in August 2010, the library has had the facility to lend multimedia items using the same self-service kiosk used for book borrowing.  This is how the system works:

1. DVDs and CD-ROMs are stored in jewel cases that look identical to the usual cases, but have an in-built locking mechanism which secures the disc inside the case.

2. The special cases also contain RFID tags, so if someone tries to leave the library with an item they have not borrowed, it will trigger the alarm.

3. When someone borrows a disc using the self-service kiosk, they will be able to exit the library without triggering the alarm.

4. Just after the security gate, there is an unlocking unit affixed to the wall.  The borrower slides the case through the unit to unlock it, and can then access the disc inside.

CD/DVD unlocking unit

Alongside the DVDs, there is also a small collection of CD-ROMs.  These CD-ROMs come from textbooks where they provide supplementary information, an electronic version of the text or animations to accompany the main text.

CD-ROMs have the same lending rules as the books they accompany.  Both the disc and the matching book are labelled ‘Multipart item – check catalogue for additional parts’ to help students locate the companion items in the library.

RFID installation

A major project during the summer of 2010 was the installation of an RFID security and stock management system.  RFID stands for Radio Frequency IDentification, and involves fitting items with a tag which can be read remotely.  The ability to read the tag remotely means that a library inventory can be conducted by using an RFID scanner to pick up the tag IDs of all the books on the shelves (which saves a great deal of time and money over having to open each book in order to scan its barcode).  It also means that multiple items may be borrowed or returned simultaneously using the self-service kiosk.  Any items not borrowed using the kiosk will trigger an alarm if the user tries to leave the library with the item, and this will greatly reduce the number of books lost each year, saving the library money.

One of the first steps was partial destruction and rebuilding of the floor, in order to install electrical and network cables for the security gates:

Underfloor cabling

Next, the gates themselves were put in (and the floor re-carpeted!):

Installing security gates

While all this was going on, RFID tags were placed in all the open-shelf books and programmed with the associated barcode of each individual book:

Adding a tag

During a three-week period, The Tagging Team repeated this process over and over again until all 53,602 books were tagged.

Once the self-service kiosk arrived, we were ready to go with the new system:

Self-service kiosk

The new kiosk has been very popular with readers, and provides a much nicer user interface than our previous self-issue system.  It gives readers the option of a receipt for each transaction, and many find this a useful way to be reminded of the due dates for their loans.

The security gate area is supervised by CCTV as the library is open 24 hours a day, but only staffed from 09:00-17:00.  If the alarm is triggered, it flags the CCTV recording so library staff can easily see if there have been any incidents overnight.

I am looking forward to the upgrading of our library management system (expected in July 2011) which will enable some other features of the kiosk to be used, e.g. readers will be able to see a list of all their loans and renew them on the screen.

“Chips and Mash” Mashed Libraries event, Huddersfield, 30th July 2010

What is a mashup?

A mashup is a derivative work consisting of blending two or more media sources. For example, a live train map for the London Underground, a remix of songs, or a calendar add-on showing the due dates on your library books.

The first Mashed Libraries event took place at Birkbeck College in November 2008. Since then, there have been events at Huddersfield (Mash Oop North!), Birmingham (Middlemash) and Liverpool (Liver and Mash). Since the theme of this event was RFID, the name Chips and Mash emerged. The next mashed libraries meet will be in Bath on 29th October, and the name Mash Spa has already been suggested.

Librarians deal with a huge amount of data, and the Mashed Library events provide a context for bringing together librarians and technical people to find new ways of ‘mashing’ library data into new and wonderful forms.

The word ‘shambrarian’ was often heard at Chips and Mash! A shambrarian is someone who works in a library or information management context (often in a tech/IT role), who knows a lot of librarians and may share some of their characteristics but is not a librarian themselves.  Librarians often have ideas for mashups they would like to create, and they need the shambrarians’ tech skills to make them happen.

The main thing I learned about today was QR [quick response] codes

Here is an example of a QR codeQR code linking to my Twitter profile

Many people now have smartphones, and you can download a free QR reader app for your device.  When you scan the QR code with your phone, it will link you to directly to some text, a URL or a phone number.  This QR code will direct you to my Twitter profile.

Some libraries are now displaying QR codes at strategic points to help with user education.  for example, a QR code by the photocopier might link the user to a tutorial about how to do double-sided copies, or QR codes on print journals might link directly to the electronic version of the same title.

I like the way that exploring the library using information linked from QR codes could make the process seem like a treasure hunt or an adventure, rather than a chore.

Generating a QR code is free.  Search for ‘QR code generator’ and you will find a variety of sites for creating your code.  You can then save the image as a file, or copy and paste the HTML to embed the image on a web page.


Intellident sponsored Chips and Mash and they brought along some RFID products to demo. I was excited to see the same type of self-service kiosk that will be arriving in my library in two weeks’ time! John Cunningham did a presentation about the range of applications they have for RFID, including monitoring the supply chain stages of fresh fruit and vegetables for supermarkets and movement of clothing stock for Marks and Spencer (look out for ‘intelligent labels for stock control’).


Linda Davies described to us the Intellident smartBlade installation at her workplace, Cardiff University. It involves placing thin panels at intervals all along the bookshelves. Using the related software, you can search for a book, and the system will send a pulse out to all the panels, reading all the books’ RFID tags until it finds the book you have searched for.  A small blue light then flashes on the panel closest to the book.  There were many impressed faces in the audience but I think very fee of us will ever see this in our libraries. As for me, I’m content with having RFID at all, and the installation of the system in my library this summer is very exciting.


Lisa Balman's inspired badge combines a badger and a QR code

We were asked to bring our own name badges for this event, and undercurrents of creativity and competitiveness blossomed into a competition for who had the best badge.  This was further complicated by the ‘badger’ theme – a Mashed Libraries tradition harking back to some meeting notes in which ‘badge’ had been misspelled – and now it seems that badgers are the official mascot of the mashup events.

My Chips and Mash badge, made out of an RFID tag

My Chips and Mash badge, made out of an RFID tag

I took pictures of as many badges as I could and you can see my photos in this Flickr set.  I won a prize for my badge, made out of an RFID tag!

Project Management

This summer, I have four main projects to co-ordinate:

  • Weeding of the collections (as described in my post about Collection Management)
  • Installation of RFID security and stock management system
  • Relocation of the Law Library from its existing home in a separate building to its new location within the main library
  • Refurbishment of the library lobby

Though these projects can run largely independently of one another, there are some points of interaction.  For example, it makes sense to weed the collections before applying RFID tags to all the books.  The refurbishment of the lobby needs to fit around the RFID installation, as the carpet needs to come up and new cabling needs to be laid before the RFID gates can be installed.

A Wordle image created from the text of the list of tasks for the summer's projects

A Wordle image created from the text of the list of tasks for the summer's projects

I started out by listing all the different stages that would be needed for each project, and began talking to other people who would be involved.  This ended up being quite a lot of people: Intellident (our RFID system supplier); the team who support Oxford’s library catalogue (OLIS) regarding the RFID system; the security company who manage our CCTV; the college’s Estates team who will organise the electrician, carpenter, and redecoration aspects;  a crate hire company for moving all the Law books;  the college IT department for all the wiring, moving of computers and WiFi installation; suppliers for new furniture… I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone!

I used Microsoft Project to begin weaving all these strands together: identifying predecessors (the order things need to be done), liaison, task durations, start and end dates and costs.

Screenshot of the Gantt chart I made for this summer's projects

Screenshot of the Gantt chart I made for this summer's projects

I liked how Project allowed me to see different layers through the plan, e.g. all the tasks that involved the IT team.  It also created a Gantt chart which helped me visualise the different phases of the work.

The only problem with using Microsoft Project is that very few of my colleagues have the software on their machines, so they would not have been able to access my document.  I worked around this by making an Excel version of the plan, once the details had been figured out.

The work begins in earnest next week, and I’m looking forward to seeing all these changes taking shape.  It will be great to welcome the students back in October with a improved library that offers them a better place to work.

November 2010 update: find out how it turned out!

Visit from another college librarian

I will begin by telling you a little story about what it means to be a collegiate university.

A major difference between the University of Oxford (and Cambridge and Durham) and other UK universities it that it has a collegiate structure.

The University of Oxford has 38 independent, self-governing colleges and 6 permanent private halls (here’s a list).

Students and staff therefore belong to both their faculty and college communities.  Colleges and permanent private halls have their own libraries, which are usually only for the use of members of that College or Hall.

Each College or Hall has its own governing structures, ethos and Fellows, and they are also financially independent.

So the College Libraries* at the University of Oxford have (paradoxically) everything and nothing in common.  They are financially and ideologically independent of each other, and can modify every aspect of their services and collections to suit their particular college.  For example, some colleges are only for postgraduates and some have subject specialisms.

However, for all these differences, the college libraries and their Librarians have common ground in that they occupy a unique niche within the University, and are quite different from the faculty and departmental libraries of the University.

And so it is that college librarians find it very useful to meet up and discuss different aspects of their work, and share experiences of tackling a variety of issues in their work.

Today, I had a visit from another college librarian who was interested to know about the library lobby redesign project I am undertaking this summer.

The new design will include:

  • Security gates for RFID security and stock management system
  • Self-issue and return kiosk for RFID
  • Combined printing, photocopying and scanning machine
  • New tables and comfortable seating
  • New carpet
  • New coat of paint

I am looking forward to the pleasant entrance to the library that this refurbishment will provide, as well as the new equipment and facilities available to readers: self-return, photocopying , scanning and colour reprographics are all new features.

This work will begin next week, so I am spending this week making sure that we are ready for the move of the library office for the duration of the work, and ensuring that library users know about alternative arrangements for access during this period.

*From here on, I will use the term “College Libraries” to refer to the libraries of both colleges and permanent private halls, to avoid repetition.  Apologies to Blackfriars, Campion Hall, Regent’s Park College**, St Benet’s Hall, St Stephen’s House and Wycliffe Hall.

** I know, I put Regent’s Park College in the list of Permanent Private Halls.  But it is in fact a Hall, and not a College.  See?