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Library’s $3.4M radio frequency technology proposal meets with opposition

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Library officials are seeking $3.4 million to adopt radio frequency technology for tracking and checking out books and other materials. (Examiner file photo)

The San Francisco Public Library is trying for a second time after more than a decade to convince the Board of Supervisors to provide funding to deploy radio frequency technology in books and other lending materials. But at least one supervisor wants to kill the plan.

Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who serves on the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, said Thursday that he intends to make a motion to strike the library’s $3.4 million budget proposal for RFID, pointing to concerns over privacy and other spending priorities like increased security.

The library wants to install RFID tags in all lending materials, which emit radio waves that are read by an RFID reader identifying the item.

Acting City Librarian Michael Lambert defended the RFID proposal Thursday during a budget committee hearing.

“It will improve customer service. This will streamline our patrons’ and our staffs’ ability to check out materials in a more efficient manner. But on the other side, it also improves the working conditions of our staff,” Lambert said. He added, “You can check in or check out a stack of books simultaneously rather than with the current barcode scanning technology where you have to individually check out or check in each item.”

But Sheehy said, “I personally would prefer to see that money not allocated for this [RFID] purpose but to see this money allocated to make sure that our libraries are actually truly accessible. If it is not safe for people to go there, they don’t go there.”

Sheehy said the Eureka Valley Branch Library in the district he represents is not safe enough, noting there have been assaults on both staff and patrons. He said having San Francisco Police Department officers on site just three days a week in the evenings is inadequate.

Sheehy also read from a Feb. 15, 2017 joint letter by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California who wrote they “have opposed, and continue to oppose, the use of RFID technology in libraries because of its very significant privacy and free speech concerns.”

“We are off buying new technology that we franky don’t need,” Sheehy said. “The checkout thing, I don’t buy it.”

Sheehy said that his 13-year-old daughter checks out her own books using the library’s self-checkout stations.“Instead you want to give her technology by which other people can track her. I do not want my daughter tracked.”

Supervisor Sandra Fewer said she shared Sheehy’s privacy concerns.

Lambert said the technology wouldn’t compromise patron’s privacy. “There is absolutely no threat to patron privacy with RFID. The technology simply does not function in a manner where individuals can be tracked,” Lambert said.

Supervisor Malia Cohen, chair of the budget committee, asked if the the technology would result in job cuts.

“We are absolutely not eliminating jobs,” Lambert said. “We’ve actually been very transparent with our largest bargaining unit SEIU 1021.”

He said that RFID will free about seven staff positions to do “more meaningful public service,” such as staffing programs or security.

The proposal is part of Mayor Mark Farrell’s budget submission, who introduced this month a two-year budget for some departments like the library. Farrell will introduce his full citywide budget proposal to the board for review on June 1.

The debate over RFID is expected to continue next week when the committee holds another hearing on the library’s budget proposal. When the library last attempted to secure funding for RFID in 2004, the board rejected it. Since then, an increasing number of libraries have adopted RFID technology.

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