Imagine never having to catalog another book. A potential reality but not one we are likely to see unless the publishing community can establish consistent technical standards for RFID (radio frequency identification). RFID tags should be bound into a book (or DVD, CD) at the bindery and that tag should represent a standard syntax that all RFID readers can understand. The process of RFID attributes a unique number (in standard syntax) to the tag that then enables readers at any point in the publishing supply chain to read the tag and identify the exact copy (or item).
As the item follows through the supply chain, data elements are be attributed to the tag representing everything from ISBN – to advanced shipping notice (ASN) – to customer membership number. In an ideal, fully implemented world, the physical touches are significantly less (and potentially zero) than in the traditional model where books are counted, sorted and cataloged repeatedly before they are eventually sold. As the example of BGN in the Netherlands shows, even in a limited implementation – that is from distribution to retailer – significant savings can be had.
Naturally a robust data warehouse sits at the center of any RFID implementation where all data elements attributable to the items reside. For example, once the RFID tag is attributed to an ISBN all the data elements describing that ISBN are now ‘readable’ at any point in the supply chain. This is particularly relevant at the end of the supply chain in the bookstore or library. At this point, a book can be found in any location in the store or library whether miss-shelved or not by reading the RFID tag. Searches conducted in the catalog or in-store kiosk will be able to identify the exact spot where the book can be found.
Potentially, implementing RFID on an industry basis would eliminate significant redundancy in the supply chain and probably increase effectiveness of everything from publishing programs to marketing programs and sales.
Clearly there are more than a few hurdles to over come to get to this point not least of which is the standard for RFID. Retail implementation of RFID in the US booktrade is limited, but not so in libraries where vendors have been selling systems into the library market for years. Unfortunately, the vendors sell their own non-compatible platforms which only partially generate the kind of improvements that could be achieved. In addition, the libraries that implement RFID have to retro-convert their collections at considerable cost and cover the costs themselves. The number of different systems in place at libraries also causes problems for suppliers who are required to place tags on items and must accommodate differing standards (obvious oxymoron) and then test the resulting tag with a version of the software in place at the library. A tiresome and inefficient process to say the least.
It doesn’t need to be so. In the Netherlands, an admittedly strong vendor set its own agenda in establishing an RFID standard for its stores. There needs to be a similar effort in the US but one that keeps the solution simple – a syntax for the RFID tag only – that will allow publishers, retailers and libraries to experiment and implement RFID in the supply chain.
Ultimately, RFID will be implemented in the publishing industry and booksellers and libraries will never have to catalog or attribute bibliographic information to a title. The bibliographic database is the other key item that needs to be addressed and there are some interesting trends in this area which I will discuss in my next article.