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Library Budget Raises RFID Questions

By Judith Scherr
Friday May 18, 2007

In an effort to bring more transparency to library governance, the Board of Library Trustees held its first public hearing last week on the budget, giving the public a chance to comment on how the institution spends the $13 million it receives through the city’s library tax.  

“It went well,” said Trustee Laura Anderson, reached by phone Thursday. A Power Point presentation by Budget Manager Beverli Marshall made the budget “clear to the public—and questions were entertained on how the money is spent.” Anderson said, adding that she thinks the information provided was adequate for her to make decisions to approve the budget in June. 

Library Director Donna Corbeil, also interviewed Thursday, agreed, but took note of the small number of participants from the public. “It would have been great if more people had been there,” she said. 

But Peter Warfield of the Library Users’ Association said the budget hearing ignored a critical question: what are ongoing costs of the library’s three-year-old Radio Frequency Identification system? Without understanding the costs, Warfield told the Daily Planet, this system of checking out books to the earlier barcode system can not be compared.  

“I think RFID is a money suck,” Warfield said. (The RFID system has also raised questions of personal privacy.) 

With the help of documents and other information provided by Corbeil, the Daily Planet was able to uncover some of the costs, which include loan repayment, materials and a maintenance contract. 

The price for the RFID system, purchased from New Jersey-based Checkpoint Systems, was $643,000, of which the library initially paid $143,000 in 2004 and funded the rest through a loan at about $111,400 per year, according to an October 18 2005 staff report by Budget Manager Beverli Marshall.  

The cost of the loan was noted in the library’s Fiscal Year 2007 adjusted budget at $127,280. According to Corbeil, the exact payment per year varies and the total payment of the loan by 2008 will not exceed $556,957. 

Another ongoing RFID expense is the annual $35,000 maintenance contract with Checkpoint Systems.  

A larger ongoing expense is the RFID tags, inserted in library materials so that the user can check them out. 

“Regular tags cost 77 cents each and media or donut tags [used on CDs and DVDs] cost $2.12 each. We estimate that in FY06/07 we added 31,000 items to the collection,” Corbeil said in an e-mail on Wednesday, responding to Daily Planet questions. 

One can compare these costs to a Sept. 14, 2005 report to the library board from Trarie Kottkamp, technical services manager, in which the regular tags were listed at 60 cents each and the donut tags were at $1.15. It is also of note that at the time the Board of Trustees voted to approve the system it was expected that these prices would fall. 

“There is general agreement that in the near future the costs of the RFID security tags should drop below their current 60 cents apiece,” Kottkamp wrote at the time. 

Warfield commented that the predicted decrease in the price of tags was one of its selling points. “It was a kind of fraud,” he alleged.  

Corbeil said the library does not keep specific records on the amount of time workers spend inserting the tags into the various media.  

Speaking for the library workers union, Andrea Segall, SEIU 535 vice president, said the concern of the workers is that there be enough money in the system so that an adequate number of library workers staff the libraries at all times and that they are able to “provide good service and worker safety.” 

Segall said that staff is working with Corbeil to analyze the effectiveness of the RFID system. “With a limited budget, we don’t want money going to things that are not working well,” she said. 

One of the goals of the group working with Corbeil is to determine whether the RFID system is operating as it is supposed to. 

Corbeil pointed out that if the Checkpoint System were found lacking, there would be new equipment expenses if the library board decided to go back to the old bar code system.