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SF Public Library revives plan to install microchips in books

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San Francisco Public Library. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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More than a decade ago, the San Francisco Public Library unsuccessfully attempted to deploy radio frequency identification tags in books.

Now, head librarian Luis Herrera is trying once again.

Herrera disclosed the renewed effort for RFID during last week’s Library Commission hearing and promised to return with more details in the coming weeks.

That means funding for RFID — tiny microchips that exchange data with readers by emitting radio signals — could be included in the library’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.

The initial cost estimate puts the installation of the new technology at some $7.5 million, spread out over several years. The cost may be a difficult sell at a time when The City is now facing budget deficits, and Mayor Ed Lee has asked city departments to propose 3 percent cuts for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

While the RFID technology proposal was supported by the library back in 2004, the Board of Supervisors rejected it during the annual budget process. At the time, both the American Civil Liberties Union Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation opposed the proposal.

“Since the technology has been used in libraries for over 10 years, procedures for ensuring patron privacy are well-established and have proven effective,” Herrera said in a Dec. 12 memo to the commission. “This technology will provide significant benefits to both staff and patrons, helping us meet our goal for service excellence.”

But a spokesperson for the ACLU Northern California said in a statement to the San Francisco Examiner on Monday that the organization continues to oppose the technology and urged The City to reject the effort.

“RFID has profound implications for civil liberties in San Francisco, including for immigrants’ rights. It’s more important than ever that San Francisco safeguard privacy, free speech, and civil liberties for all,” Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director of the ACLU of California, said in the statement.

EFF spokesperson Rebecca Jeschke told the Examiner on Monday “we do have some concerns about this proposal, but we haven’t looked at it as closely as we’d like.”

Herrera said in the memo that “the use of a combination of library cards without RFID tags and library items bearing passive RFID tags (with a limited range of under one meter) offer increased circulation efficiency while ensuring patron privacy.”

Library spokesperson Katherine Jardine emphasized on Monday that the library has yet to make a formal proposal.

“We have made no commitments or decisions at this point, and we’re looking forward to working with ACLU and EFF in addressing any shared concerns,” Jardine said.

Bill Kolb, the library’s first-floor manager, told the commission last week that “the only information that’s encoded on the tag itself is the bar code number” and also a security “theft” bit that can be turned on or off. He said a device would need to be within 30 inches to pick up an RFID tag signal in library materials.

Shellie Cocking, the library’s senior manager for collection development, noted last week that comparable libraries have already adopted the technology, including Queens, which was one of the first in 2004, Los Angeles Public Library, Houston Public Library and San Diego Public Library. Other local libraries in Oakland do not, but Berkeley Public Library does, and San Jose Public Library just recently acquired it.

Library officials say it would improve check-out times — all materials could be processed at once, not needing each bar code scanned individually as is currently required — and inventory of the collection would be easier to ascertain by walking around the library shelves and using what is sometimes referred to as the “magic wand,” the RFID hand-held reader.

“Currently, if we want to do an inventory of our collection, we have to go out and lay hands on every single book. Pull it out, so you can see that the bar code,” Cocking said last week. “It is really time consuming. It has a big impact on staff physically.”

Peter Warfield, who heads a group called the Library Users Association, said that “the benefits of RFID from my experience and work on it have been highly overrated.”

Melissa Riley, a representative of the Librarians Guild, told the commission, “I am not going to say I am opposed to RFID, but I do think we need to consider both the virtues and the drawbacks from the various angles before we decide to spend money in this budget situation.”

Riley added, “The climate of our upcoming federal administration and given various previous encroachments on our privacy it might be something worth thinking about really closely.”

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