This month’s big library RFID news came when the Berkeley Public Library announced that it was spending $650,000 to place RFID tags on 550,000 library items. This is a library that has already exceeded its budget and has borrowed $500,000 from the city for the project:

The library has slashed its books and materials budget by 25 percent and has been scrambling to raise funds to recover about $300,000 for books by June. What’s more, 15 staff positions have been left vacant, and up to a dozen people could be laid off in the coming fiscal year, Griffin said. Additionally, library hours have been reduced by 16 hours weekly at the central library and 12 hours a week at the four branches.

Library Director Jackie Griffin claims that having self-checkout machines (that are made possible with RFID tags) will lessen repetitive stress injuries, though no research has been done to support that. I don’t know if the library is tagging audiovisual materials, but if it is not, then I don’t imagine it will be too successful in decreasing repetitive stress injuries. The Alameda Times-Star article also contained a quote from Griffin, stating “as we struggle to maintain staff at the library, this system will allow us to turn staff to other tasks such as helping patrons find books or use the computers.”

Or waiting in the unemployment line? The Berkeley Daily Planet also reports that the library has proposed laying off twelve mostly paraprofessional employees. It sounds like the Berkeley Public Library has decided to deal with its budget problems by trusting that technology will decrease the need for actual human employees. Apparently they don’t realize that machines break and need people to fix them. They also don’t seem to realize that a fair number of their patrons may still want to check their books out with a real human being, either because they are resistant to technology or they like talking to the librarians.

The other major concern with RFID implementation is the potential for abuse. To read articles and studies about the privacy implications of RFID, take a look at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s webpage on the subject. Public concerns about privacy led the San Francisco Public Library to put its own RFID project on hold, but the Berkeley Public Library has already completed almost half of its tagging. You’d think that in a city that is known for being way more liberal than the rest of the country (way more liberal than much of the state, even) there would be serious concerns about the privacy implications of RFID. And there have been concerns raised and protests made by citizens of Berkeley. While it is likely that the library will do a good job of protecting patrons’ privacy, there is the potential for RFIDs to be used to track all sorts of patron information. The article quoted Lee Tien of the EFF, who stated “we don’t argue that the use of RFID right away is a humongous privacy invasion. We are worried about the society we will end up with 20 years down the road when the technology is ubiquitous.” And for the Berkeley Public Library to ignore the concerns of its patrons is ridiculous. This goes to the heart of user-centered technology implementation. In addition, this is a relatively new technology with standards still being developed, cost being high, and vendor lock-in being a serious concern.

I don’t know what the future holds for RFID technology, but I know that it is not meant to replace human employees. However, if it RFID implementation is shown to reduce costs by allowing libraries to lay-off staff, I think we’ll probably see it implemented in other cash-strapped libraries as well. We will undoubtedly see more of this tension between technology change and patron concerns, especially with technologies that have the potential for abuse. While it’s important to keep costs low in libraries, protecting patrons (and their information) should always take precedence.