Semantic Web and Libraries
26 Library Systems Seminar
Rome, 17-19 April 2002

Large Scale Application Of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) In Public Libraries
The Experience Of National Library Board, Singapore


WONG Tack Wai
Senior Manager
Services Innovation & Development
National Library Board or
April 2002


The journey to the Singapore public libraries as we know them today started 10 years ago. A landmark study by the Library 2000 Review Committee was carried out from 1992 to 1994. In this study, it plotted the blueprint of our system over the next 15 to 20 years.

The Library 2000 report had garnered input from diverse sectors ranging from the library and government sectors to the industry, and the social and cultural sectors. Not only did this result in a comprehensive suite of recommendations that would benefit various sectors of the nation but it also meant that the report had popular support with the stakeholders.

1995 - Formation of NLB.

The National Library Board (NLB) was subsequently formed in September 1995 and guided by a vision and mission that came from the report of the Library 2000 Committee.

The mission of our organization is to expand the learning capacity of the nation. Complementing this mission is the service vision that we will deliver services that are convenient, accessible, affordable and useful to our people.

The NLB’s character and objectives are captured in the logo, which reflects modernity, dynamism and the spirit of innovation in its design. The stylized book with flipping pages points to the power of unlimited learning and the continuous search for knowledge. The transition from solid pages to pixels traces the evolution from print to electronic media. It further represents the Board’s commitment to be on the cutting edge of technological development and to improve and expand its services. The three pages represent the library system’s use of three-tier regional, community and neighbourhood libraries to bring information to the doors of every household.

In 1994, there were ten community libraries and one regional library in Singapore. These libraries generated a loan rate of 10 million in that year. By 1995, the loan rate increased to 14 million. The NLB customer base was increasing relentlessly and libraries were expecting more customers each day. Loan figures were expected to increase even further as NLB planned to expand to twenty community libraries and four regional libraries by 2003.


1996 to 1997 - Business Process Re-engineering (BPR)

To keep up with its clientele, the NLB conducted a Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) exercise between June 1997 and January 1998 with top 50 people in NLB as participants. The only guidelines during the BPR for the participants were that stretch targets for each of these activities should be proposed and met. The stretch targets were in a word, ambitious. One innovation, for instance, aim to reduce the waiting time to return and borrow books during peak hours from 1.5 hours to less than 15 minutes.

The use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology for returning and check out of materials, colour-coding of books for fast shelf-reading and an optimised supply chain to ensure the latest materials are on the shelves for customers within the shortest timeframe were "killer apps" from the BPR exercise.


1998 – First RFID Implementation

The genesis of the use of RFID in libraries came from a review of the use of RF technology in a supermarket that enabled shopping trolleys of goods to be identified and checked out as they were moved out. NLB thought then that this could also be applied to the checking in and out of items in libraries. NLB even took it a step further by suggesting that the technology could be extended to the sorting and eventually to locating and retrieval of items.

Exploration of the technology and mock-ups were done with R&D units from the public and private sector before Singapore Technologies developed a prototype that was workable. As a result of NLB’s interest in the project and the potential of the technology for worldwide applications, Singapore Technologies formed a company known as ST Logitrack (STLT - to managed its development.

Many months of hard work were put in ever since the prototype was first demonstrated. In November, the Electronic Library Management System (ELiMS) using RFID technology was piloted at Bukit Batok Community Library (BBCL). The system consisted of two RF bookdrops, two sorting stations, six RF borrowing stations, two RF counter stations, one administration station, one server and a two-lane EAS (electronic article surveillance) gates. RF tags were attached to 120,000 books.

This is probably the world’s first application of RFID fully deployed for public use in a library environment. With ELiMs, we achieved our service level target of less than five minutes queuing time to borrow materials during peak periods; and zero minute queuing time for book returns. The use of RFID allows a reader returning a book to have it immediately checked in. NLB has breached the impossibility of zero-minute queues for the return of books.

However, one challenge remained. NLB still needed staff in the backroom to sort the materials that are returned. NLB has a large number of service-partners - people who are not highly trained in the library service. For many years, our assistants would move from libraries to working in shops or factories. It was difficult and expensive to keep training people who come and go. Today, all materials have RFID tags categorizing them into 27 groups, so if you can count from 1 to 27, you can work in the back office of a library to sort materials into categories. It also allows us to sort books and put books back on the shelves within 15 minutes of return, which is a service target, compared to the 8 hours it used to take several years ago.


1999 –Two Another Test Sites

The system was implemented in Toa Payoh Community Library (TPCL) in May 1999 and in Orchard Community Library (OCCL) in September 1999.

The implementation of RFID system for OCCL was very similar to BBCL, both being new sites within shopping malls. TPCL was a case of upgrading an existing standalone library. The one major difference was that books from TPCL had to be brought back to the Library Supply Centre warehouse in Changi for RF tagging, after which the books were sent back to the upgraded library.


2000 – Roll-Out and New Challenges

The fourth implementation of the RF system was in May 2000 for Marine Parade Community Library (MPCL).

The use of RFID yielded a myriad of possibilities that NLB aggressively explored. Beyond making borrowing and returning books a breeze, the ELiMS system also addressed another recurring customer concern that books in libraries were misplaced by other customers. Customers approached library staff about 150 times each month with such concerns. A search for one item could take up to 7 days. With ELiMS, stocktaking of books in a library that used to take two weeks would take less than a day. A prototype handheld RF stocktaking device was shown during the opening of MPCL. It was to take another two years of development to arrive at a the working model and processes for RF stocktaking.

The use of new libraries as test beds allows NLB to fine-tune prototypes with minimum impact on the existing branches and users. Successful ideas and experiments are then rolled out to existing branches. This same principle was applied to RFID technology in library transactions. It was developed at four branches before NLB made the decision to roll it out system-wide.

In April, a tender was called for the supply for Electronic Library Materials Management System Using RFID Technology. The tender closed in May and was finally awarded to STLT in August 2000.

In between the tender exercise, the fifth RFID system was implemented in Sembawang Community Library (SBCL) in August 2000.

The first implementation under the tender and the sixth RFID system implementation was for Pasir Ris Community Library (PRCL) in October 2000.

NLB and its technology partners were jointly awarded the International Certificate of Grant of Patent in December 2000 for the invention of the RFID application in the tracking and monitoring of books.

Just when everything seems to be going fine, the RFID system came under treat from shortage in supply of RF tags. To overcome this problem, a variation was made in December to the tender for a Universal System that was capable of working with open standards RF tags and at the same time, remain backward compatible with existing proprietary tags already in the system. This move not only help NLB overcome the tag shortage supply situation with many possible new sources of supply for open standard tags, but also opened opportunities for more applications since open standard tags have a larger memory capacity of 512 bits.


2001 - Universal RFID System

This innovative use of technology also propelled NLB to the cover of the 2 January 2001 inaugural Networking Section of the Asian Wall Street Journal. In an article entitled "Libraries Get High-Tech Boost", the libraries in Singapore were touted as being "trend setting" and "historic".

The first universal system, and the seventh RFID system implementation was for Woodlands Regional Library (WRL) in April 2001 which offers half a million items to the public. Many improvements were made to RFID system. For one, the machines are now manufactured in a proper assembly line of an electronic contract manufacturing plant complete with quality assurance processes. This is a vast improvement from the days where the machines were hand-soldered and assembled in the vendor’s office.

Round and rectangular RF tags were also being rolled out for the first time in WRL for CDROM and videocassettes respectively. These tags enable the use of a single user interface at the borrowing stations to checkout not only books and magazines, but also CD-ROMS and videocassettes.

The eighth RFID system implementation was for Jurong West Community Library (JWCL) in May 2001.

Between June and December 2001, the universal system was rolled back to BBCL, TPCL, OCCL, MPCL, SBCL and PRCL. The earliest two implementations at BBCL and TPCL received a facelift to the borrowing stations to bring about the same look and feel as the rest of the system while all six early implementations received new sets of universal EAS gates.

The roll-out has reached a feverish pace. In October 2001, the ninth tenth and eleventh universal RFID system were implemented in Cheng San Community Library (CSCL), Bukit Panjang Community Library (BPCL), Chua Chu Kang Community Library (CCKCL) respectively. The new process for these libraries is to tag the books at the library itself ahead of the RFID equipment installation.. For example, on-site tagging for CSCL started as early as in August. This enabled the library to close for a very short period of a few days to set up the RFID system.

The twelfth and thirteenth RFID system implementation were for Yishun Community Library (YICL) and Bedok Community Library (BECL) respectively in November 2001.

November 2001 also saw the first RF remote borrowing service being set up in Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre in support of Learning Symposium. This was an important milestone and it showed how far the RFID System has evolved since its first implementation. It took more than a month to set-up the first system. The setup time was reduced to 4 weeks, to 3 weeks, to 2 weeks to 1 week to 4 days and for the remote library, it took only 4 hours to set-up and 1 hour to tear down the RFID system.

The fourteenth RFID system implementation was for Tampines Regional Library (TRL) in December 2001.


2002 - All Public Libraries Using RFID

The fifteenth RFID system implementation was for Central Community Library (CTCL) in January 2002.

The sixteenth RFID system implementation was for National Reference Library (NRL) in January 2002. In this implementation, the RF equipments included were sorting stations and EAS gates. There are neither borrowing machine nor bookdrop for NRL as being a Reference Library, there are no loans out of the library.

The seventeenth RFID system implementation was for Queenstown Community Library (QUCL) in February 2002

The eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth RFID system implementation were for Bukit Merah Community Library (BMCL), Jurong East Community Library (JECL) and Geyland East Community Library (GECL) in April 2002

The last library to be implemented with RFID will be Ang Mo Kio Community Library (AMCL). This library will be closed for major upgrade at the end of April 2002 and reopened to the public in January 2003.

The RFID innovation has enabled NLB to save more than $50 million in manpower cost. In fact, NLB would have needed 2000 staff at its 20 outlets today, just to stamp books for return and loans, to meet the equivalent service standards offered by the RFID system.

Since 1995, NLB has managed to see a nine-fold increase in the pace of the library development programme, three-fold increase in visitorship and a loan growth rate of approximately 20% per year to reached 27.9 million loans in 2001. The use of IT and RFID technology in the libraries has also earned NLB the distinction of winning the National IT award for the innovative use of IT in the public sector in 1998. The achievements by NLB since 1995 have not only fulfilled many of the strategies outlined in the Library 2000 Report but established a firm basis for further development by the NLB into a key player in the nation’s national learning enterprise.

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