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Library’s New Technology Sparks Controversy By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday February 15, 2005

Beneath its tranquil surface, the Berkeley Public Library is rife with tension. 

With management moving full speed ahead to install a controversial automated checkout system at the same time it has proposed laying off 12 mostly low-level employees, privacy advocates fear Big Brother will soon be lurking behind the checkout desk and library workers are wondering if they will have a place in the fully automated library of the future. 

“The library is a place for people to connect and communicate,” said Nick Nastick, a Berkeley library assistant for the past 16 years. “If we lose that we become just another industrial machine.” 

Nastick is one of several librarians who doesn’t know if he will have a job come July when the layoff proposal, now before the library’s board of trustees, would take effect. 

Facing a $1 million shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year and having reduced operating hours last year, Library Director Jackie Griffin has suggested overhauling Berkeley libraries. To cut down on workers compensation claims and close the deficit, Griffin has proposed layoffs targeted primarily at library aides and assistants—the employees who spend the most time checking out books and stacking them on shelves. 

Griffin assumes that check-out staff will be in low demand thanks to the introduction of Radio Frequency Identity Devices (RFID), scheduled to be implemented in July.  

Nearly every day for the past several months library employees have sat behind glass doors on the third floor of the main branch sticking palm-size antennae on the library’s 500,000 volume collection. 

When the roll-out is complete, instead of waiting for an employee to swipe each book through a barcode detector, patrons will be able to check out their items in one simple motion by sweeping them over a table top reader. 

“It’s state of the art,” said Doug Karp of New Jersey-based Checkpoint Systems, the largest producer of RFID technology to libraries and the supplier to Berkeley and about 140 other libraries worldwide. Checkpoint products use proprietary technology, only functional with Checkpoint systems, meaning that Berkeley could face risks if the company raises prices or goes out of business. 

And hi-tech doesn’t come cheap. Berkeley is paying $650,000 for the system at a time when budget constraints are being blamed for lost jobs. 

The library, which operates independent of the city administration, has seen the cost of employee benefits surge. And after voters rejected a tax hike on the ballot last November, there is little hope for a sudden infusion of revenue. 

“The intent of RFID was never to take people’s jobs,” said Griffin. “People don’t want to hear this, but the reality is either we cut staff positions or cut back the book budget, those are the only things that are left.” 

Without RFID to improve workplace efficiency, Griffin added, the library would still have to lay off employees and further reduce hours. 

RFID, first used by farmers to track cattle, has been around for over 30 years. However, the recent mushrooming of applications, including tagging prisoners in Michigan, luggage on airplanes, merchandise in Wal-Mart warehouses, and possibly middle school students in Sutter, Calif., has sparked concerns from privacy advocates. 

“We don’t argue that the use of RFID right away is a humongous privacy invasion. We are worried about the society we will end up with 20 years down the road when the technology is ubiquitous,” said Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.  

RFID tags encode items that can then be tracked by specially made devices. In libraries, the system speeds up checkouts and makes inventory easier, library officials say.  

Proponents of RFID say that privacy concerns about the systems are exaggerated. They argue that the reading devices function only if they are within about a foot of the tag and that even if someone managed to read the tag all he would see is an insignificant serial number. 

“The number is meaningless,” said Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal, an independent publication. “Unless you have access to the library database and know what book corresponds to the serial number, there is no privacy breach.  

But Tien and other opponents including the American Civil Liberties Union, fear that once a patron leaves the library, authorities could use the tag to track them instead of the book. Someone with a powerful reader, even if he doesn’t know the title of the book, Tien postulated, could follow the patron to other locations with reading devices, like Wal-Mart, the airport or an ATM, and gather more information about the patron. 

Tien also questioned industry claims about the limited power of reading devices and fears that future devices will have longer range. 

“The trajectory of the technology is what we ought to be concerned about,” he said. 

Peter Warfield, head of the Library Users Association in San Francisco, fears that if progressive cities like Berkeley and San Francisco move ahead with RFID, the industry will use it to deflect concerns of privacy advocates. 

“They want to push their way here so they can turn around and tell other cities, ‘Look, there’s no need to worry,’” he said. 

The battle against RFID in San Francisco led the Board of Supervisors to hold up that city’s purchase of an RFID system. Now with the issue returning to the fore this week as the Library Commission reviews its budget for next year, Berkeley’s Griffin thinks out-of-town privacy advocates are using Berkeley as a proxy in their battle to keep RFID out of San Francisco. 

“They’re trying to discredit Berkeley before San Francisco votes,” she said. “For Peter Warfield and Lee Tien, the real issue is the San Francisco Public Library, not us.” 

Griffin, who was library director in Eugene, Ore. when that city started down the road to RFID, pushed, with the backing of a volunteer employee committee, for Berkeley to adopt the system two years ago as it was opening a larger central branch with no money for new hires.  

Griffin has high hopes for Berkeley’s system. She expects self-checkouts to jump from 15 percent to 90 percent and worker’s compensation claims to decline. 

While library directors who instituted the system in other cities rave about its performance, the results have varied. In Santa Clara, which in 2000 became the first city on the West Coast to switch to RFID, but has not yet attached tags to CDs and DVDs, Library Director Karen Saunders said they have achieved a self-checkout rate of 45 percent.  

In Eugene, Ore., which like Berkeley has RFID installed on all its items, self-checkout rates hover just below 100 percent, said Margaret Hazel, the library’s technology manager. 

Neither library laid off workers when it implemented RFID. “What we did in Eugene was reallocate the staff to give them more challenging tasks and more interaction with the public,” Hazel said. 

As far as reducing workers’ compensation claims for repetitive stress syndrome, neither Eugene nor Santa Clara had significant claims prior to implementing RFID, their managers said. In Berkeley, however, Griffin maintains that workers’ compensation claims have costs the library and the city roughly $2 million every five years. 

A 2002 city report lists the library’s year total workers’ compensation costs at just over $1 million. Repetitive motion injuries accounted for three of the 130 claims, while 66 claims were listed as caused by the cumulative impact of various tasks, according to the report. 

Griffin insisted the report only accounts for direct costs and that the library faced an extra million in indirect costs to replace the injured workers. 

Under her reorganization plan, Griffin has called for eliminating positions held by 31 employees and replacing them with 22 new positions, most of which will be filled by current staff now holding the eliminated positions. 

The goal, she said, was to create a more flexible workforce by training several of the remaining library aides and assistants to do more varied work that involved more personal interaction with patrons. 

Eventually, Griffin would like to see the library buy a conveyer belt system that uses RFID technology to intake books and move them to the proper stack for shelving. The system, also made by Checkpoint, is already in place in Santa Clara and Eugene.  

To save jobs, the library workers’ union, SEIU Local 535, has offered to accept mandatory and voluntary time off and reduce a full work week from 40 to 37.5 hours. 

Nastick fears that with 12 fewer employees, the library, currently staffed by 157 full- and part-time workers, will struggle to serve those patrons not wired for the digital age. 

“Now if someone wants to reserve a book we encourage them to do it through the computer,” he said. “It seems like a small thing, but it’s part of the human touch.”