Public Comment

Library Is Silent on Radio Frequency ID System

By Peter Warfield
Thursday June 25, 2009 - 06:32:00 PM

Dr. Helen Caldicott, the noted author and world acclaimed anti-nuclear activist, will speak in Berkeley this Saturday, June 27, 2009, 7:30 p.m., at a benefit to support SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense) in its legal challenge of the City Council’s waiver of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act (NFBA) for the Berkeley Public Library.  

The waiver allowed the Berkeley Public Library to sign a contract with 3M Company for maintenance of its checkout system. 3M is a corporation that would not sign a standard city form for contractors that they are not now doing “work for nuclear weapons” and will not do so for the life of the contract. SuperBOLD contends that the City Council did not appropriately consider alternatives to the contract, as required by the NFBA.  

Dr. Caldicott is the founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which won a Nobel Peace Prize, and was herself a nominee for the prize. The Smithsonian Institute named her one of the most influential women of the 20th century. She is the author of seven books, and will speak on “The Relevance of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power to International Relations and the Green Revolution.” 

SuperBOLD, and others, have some very serious issues with the library’s radio frequency identification (RFID) checkout system, but the library administration and the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) appear determined to bury them in a pall of silence. 

On June 10, BOLT held two meetings, a Budget Workshop and a regular meeting, and several members of the public raised concerns about important issues, primarily about the library’s privacy-threatening RFID checkout system. But neither the Trustees nor the library administration responded to the comments as they were made or in any discussions about the budget that followed. 

Ying Lee, recent former BOLT member, made reference to the Commentaries of Peter Warfield and Gene Bernardi, saying she wanted to “recognize the work citizens have done” in revealing problems in the library’s RFID system. (See three articles by Bernardi and Warfield in the Berkeley Daily Planet, May 7 and May 14, 2009.) Lee said she recognized that RFID was problematic, but “didn’t track it systematically.” She said that RFID is “expensive” and “doesn’t work.” And, she said, there is “no evidence” of RFID reducing repetitive stress injuries (RSIs), as has been repeatedly stated as a reason for installing it. She also pointed out that “multiple [simultaneous] checkouts don’t work,” referencing another failed promise. “I don’t understand why we don’t have the barcode,” she concluded. 

Phyllis Olin, who is President of the Western States Legal Foundation, an anti-nuclear organization, commented that she “second[s] what Ying has said.” “It’s time to stop throwing good money after bad,” Olin said, recommending that the library scrap the existing RFID system. 

Gene Bernardi, member of SuperBOLD, presented a quotation from a vendor of self-service checkout systems, showing that a bar code self-checkout system, including a three-year maintenance contract, could be purchased for $164,431—less than the current two-year contract with 3M Company for maintenance only of the RFID system costing $168,915. 

Phoebe Sorgen, a member of the Peace and Justice Commission, but speaking as an individual, asked the Trustees to prepare a detailed cost benefit analysis of continuation of the existing RFID checkout system as well as use of other vendors and other technology approaches, such as bar codes and magnetic strips as were previously used at the library. 

Other members of the public also spoke about their objections to the library contracting with 3M Company. 

Neither BOLT nor the library administration responded to these concerns at the time they were stated, or during budget discussions that followed. The only hint of action on RFID was that the budget for fiscal year 2009-10 and 2010-11 includes $30,000 for a consultant to “conduct research on the current options available in library security and materials handling systems.” 

SuperBOLD has a special reason to be disappointed by the library’s silence and apparent inaction on RFID because the library director made a commitment in a meeting with SuperBOLD, its attorney Michael Lozeau, and the Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan. The agreement was memorialized in a May 11 letter to SuperBOLD’s attorney and signed by Mr. Cowan.  

Cowan wrote: “As we discussed, I am writing this letter to confirm the following: Library staff are planning to present a report to the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) in June concerning general approaches to eliminate any need to contract with the 3M Company for maintenance of the library’s RFID system. Library staff hopes—but of course cannot promise—that the BOLT will provide sufficient guidance at that time to enable the preparation of a request for proposals.” 

Library staff as referenced in the letter means library management, but we saw no report on the agenda, nor was one mentioned at the June BOLT meeting. As of this writing, we are not aware of any additional BOLT meetings in June. 

In other actions June 10, BOLT agreed to ask the City Council on June 23 to approve an increase in the Library Services Tax rate of 0.815 percent, based on the Bay Area Consumer Price Index. The library estimated it would receive “an increase in revenue of approximately $404,091 which is included in the fiscal year 2010 proposed budget. 

Yet the library’s annual budget for books and materials is dropping precipitously, by $125,000 for the next two fiscal years, to $816,000. This represents a 13 percent drop from the current year, and almost 30 percent from the $1,123,442 materials budget two years ago in fiscal year 2007-08 as shown in California Library Statistics, which prints self-reported figures. 

In another serious service reduction, approved in May, 2009, the library plans to eliminate inter-library loan (ILL) That will cut off library patrons’ traditional access to a world of tens of millions of books and other materials in more than 50,000 libraries that co-operatively share books and other materials for the benefit of their patrons. Berkeley also thereby ends its contributions to the system, impoverishing the co-operative library community as well. The LINK+ system is a poor substitute, drawing from only 50 libraries and placing patrons at risk of a huge $115 fee for lost or damaged books. 

The event’s sponsoring organizations include Berkeley Women in Black, Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, Code Pink, Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, Ecumenical Peace Institute-N. Cal, Grandmothers for Peace, Gray Panthers of Berkeley, Green Party of Alameda county, Library Users Association, Middle East Children’s Alliance, Nuclear Information Resource Service, Social Justice Committee of Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians, War Resistors League-West, Western States Legal Foundation, and Veterans for Peace Chapter 69. 

The sooner we can put the library’s dysfunctional and maintenance-expensive RFID system and its contract with 3M Company behind us, by substituting a more reliable and less expensive bar code system, the more attention we can pay to the library’s core purposes—books and materials, and staff.  

Remember to attend the Dr. Caldicott event, Saturday June 27 at 7:30 p.m., Redwood Gardens Community Room, 2951 Derby St. Tickets are available at independent bookstores in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. 


Peter Warfield is executive director of Library Users Association and a member of SuperBOLD.