Almanac

News - March 30, 2011

What's your frequency? Menlo library seeks council approval for upgrade

by Sandy Brundage

A desire for faster checkout and fewer literary thefts lies behind a proposed Menlo Park public library upgrade. As part of a system-wide change within the Peninsula Library network, barcodes tagging each item will be replaced by radio frequency identification (RFID) chips.

Menlo Park Library administrator Susan Holmer said she is requesting money for the upgrade from the city's capital improvements program budget. The plan has yet to be approved by the council, which should vote on the improvements at its April 26 meeting.

The project to retag all of the materials and purchase equipment would cost about $150,000, which would come from a combination of general funds and special library funds, according to Ms. Holmer.

The Peninsula Library System negotiated the contract with vendor 3M since the upgrades are system-wide.

Librarian Nick Szegda said the RFID system would let patrons check out a stack of items at once, instead of going item by item. "The current system also gives us frequent false alarms — the library patron has (his or her) items checked out, but because of the limitations of the technology, checked-out items still trip the security alarm," he said.

"Front desk staff have to then call the patron back and re-check all of (the) items. This happens at least once an hour."

Not all Peninsula libraries will make the switch at the same time. The Foster City and Redwood Shores branches are first up, with Menlo Park currently figuring out its plan for retagging the collection and planning to start with the more popular collections by July or August, according to library staff.

San Mateo, Mountain View, and Santa Clara already use RFID; residents may also have spotted the technology in action at Ikea and Home Depot.

At a time when the City Council is thinking about closing the library one day a week, on top of deciding last summer to close the day after nine holidays, justifying the need to swap checkout systems could be an uphill battle.

"I would say RFID is a 'pothole' issue — it costs money to fix now, but it saves money in the long run," Mr. Szegda said. "We are automating the routine stuff to focus on the things we do best — talk to patrons about books, promote reading, and answer complicated reference questions that Google cannot. There are still quite a few of those!"

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