Voracious readers of Tacoma, brace yourselves for a two-week closure of Tacoma’s library system starting Aug. 17.
During that time, employees will tag and catalog each of the system’s more than 700,000 books, CDs and DVDs. Information technology staff will install nearly 100 work stations that will read the tags, called radio frequency identification tags, or RFID.
When the library’s eight locations reopen Sept. 1, customers will be able to check out materials faster. Instead of scanning each book by hand with a bar code scanner, library workers will place a stack of materials on a small mat. An antenna hooked up to a computer will automatically scan the tags embedded in each item.
Library director Susan Odencrantz said the last two weeks in August were a logical choice for the project because they’re the last hurrah of summer. School hasn’t started yet, and the summer reading club has just ended.
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“This is the two slowest weeks of the year,” she said of the Aug. 17-31 time frame.
Book drops will remain open, and any books due during the two-week closure will not be due until after the library reopens, library spokesman David Domkoski said.
The first phase of the project is a massive undertaking and will require the help of almost every staff member for that entire two weeks, Odencrantz said. This phase costs $400,000 — half from the library’s trust fund and half from the city’s general fund. The money will pay for the RFID tags, new equipment to scan the tags and new security gates at the library exits.
Libraries have been using RFID technology to track their collections for around 15 years, said Christine Bassett, the library’s information technology manager. But in recent months, the cost has dropped enough for it to become worthwhile in Tacoma.
“In order to survive, we need this,” Odencrantz said. “We actually have desperate needs to have more, not less, staff. That isn’t going to happen.”
Using RFID technology will help the library adjust to that new reality, she said. Sometimes it can take hours for staff to check in items after users return them. With the new system, they can move the books and discs over a pad, which tracks returns more quickly and accurately.
After the system’s hours were cut in 2012, the library system saw an initial dip in visitors and items checked out. But the numbers quickly rebounded.
That high volume puts a strain on an already-thin staff, given the risk of repetitive stress injuries and the amount of work employees must accomplish each day, Odencrantz said.
Included in the first phase will be one self-checkout station in the main Tacoma library branch at 1102 Tacoma Ave. S. All libraries will get such stations in the second phase of the project, Odencrantz said. With the self-service machine, users will scan their cards; place a stack of books, CDs and other items on the mat; and then be on their way.
The RFID tags themselves are white, a couple inches square and have a thin wire running through them. By itself, the tag does nothing, Bassett said. When a patron checks out a book, an antenna reads the code and connects to the library’s database, which has information about the item being checked out, she said.
While Tacoma moves forward with the new technology, the Pierce County Library System has no plans to add RFID tags. System spokeswoman Linda Farmer said it would be “extremely expensive” to do it at all 19 library branches, and officials are happy with self-checkout stations that were installed years ago.
Read more about the library’s RFID project at tacomapubliclibrary.org.