Public Comment

Berkeley Library Obfuscation Misleads Commissioners, Public

By Gene Bernardi
Wednesday January 21, 2009 - 06:48:00 PM

The Berkeley Public Library’s (BPL) response to questions asked by the Peace and Justice Commission (P&J) included some very misleading answers. These were regarding the library’s request for a waiver of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act. 

BPL made the request for a waiver because the library wants to sign a contract with 3M (a company involved in the nuclear industry) to maintain its Radio Frequency ID system (RFID), a so-called self-service checkout system. 

Although the P&J’s questions mentioned RFID, the library’s answers never used the acronym RFID. Instead they referred to “self-checkout technology” (or the Checkpoint system) in such a manner that the reader is led to believe that there is only one type of self-checkout system (i.e., RFID). However, there is another form of self-checkout system: the barcode self-checkout system which BPL Central had prior to its adoption of RFID. Barcode self-checkout machines cost as little as $12,300 (San Diego Public Library) whereas the RFID self-checkout machines cost in the range of $20,000 according to 3M. 

When the P&J asked in their written questions “what would it cost to reinstate the security function that existed prior to the installation of the checkpoint system?” the library responded that the question presumes a return to manual checkout [by staff]. Then it went on to elaborate the supposedly huge cost necessitated by conversion to staff manual checkout in a new security system. First, the question does not presume a return to manual checkout because a return to a barcode self-checkout system is an option. Second, in itemizing the cost for security strips, BPL includes $120,000 for the 600,000 items held by BPL, even though in the next paragraph it states “…some of the current library collection does retain the security devices of its earlier system….” The library continues, “…the entire collection would need to be handled to determine the need for re-tagging each individual item.” What re-tagging? Neither a manual checkout nor a barcode self-checkout system requires re-tagging. All items in the existing RFID system already have barcode labels, and the same barcode labels are used for manual and barcode self-checkout. 

Furthermore, BPL speaks of the cost of removing all the RFID tags, and the possible damage to the books and other items. Removal of the tags is not necessary. There is a simple method for deactivating the tags without removal (not to be herein divulged for security reasons). 

BPL told the P&J Commission that in-house personnel have been doing the maintenance on the RFID system. P&J asked why, then, do “you argue that an outside vendor is needed?” The library’s answer indicated that it is not maintenance for which they need an outside vendor, but the expectation of “increased equipment failure” and the need for its replacement. BPL states, “…without a contract and the means to replace critical components the library’s investment…would be fully lost as the system ages and degrades into a state of inoperability.” 

It appears the library’s existing RFID system is on its last legs or as BPL puts it, at “its lifecycle end.” That being the case, why buy another RFID system, which, in another three years, may reach its “life- cycle end”? Whatever its initial cost, a barcode manual or a barcode self-checkout system is a more durable and patron friendly system. 

The same amount of training and guidance used to encourage the public to use RFID self-checkout machines, if applied to the use of barcode self-checkout machines, would undoubtedly have the same results; perhaps better, because patrons wouldn’t need to be concerned about radio frequency radiation or privacy invasion. 

On the other hand, why not a return to staff manual checkout? In these dire economic times, the library could contribute to economic recovery by creating entry-level jobs for checkout, thus returning personal contact to library transactions and a more friendly atmosphere. 

The library’s request for a waiver of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act is expected to be on the City Council’s Tuesday Jan. 27 agenda. Please check the city’s website, or call the city clerk (981-6900) to verify the date. Please attend to ask the council to deny waiver of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act which was overwhelmingly approved by Berkeley voters in 1986. Also helpful would be a letter to the mayor and City Council sent c/o the city clerk at 


Gene Bernardi is a member of SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organized for Library Defense).