Queue of patrons at checkout desk, behind which is an expanse of drywall

Upon this Sunday visit to retrieve the system’s lone copy of Eye, 15 people were waiting in line to check out their books. The line was down to ten by the time I got there, presumably different people. I thought they had only one checkout station working, but there were two. Except the system was down and they were merely scanning barcodes into Microsoft Word. I rather hope they saved the file from time to time.

Staff passed my items around the barrier to me. We had the same bullshit conversation when I showed them my book from another branch. (Just give me the damned book back. Don’t blow smoke up my ass and tell me you have to check it out again. [What if it’s overdue, and what if it’s already from NYCL?] There is zero chance I am stealing a book from the library when I just handed it to a librarian.)

Are we done yet? Of course we aren’t.

Why were there only two checkout stations? Because more than half the former checkout area is under construction. For what? For those accursed, godforsaken RFID self-checkout machines. This will upend the apple cart at North York Central considerably, because by definition you’ll be able to walk right out with your items. To hell with the barrier.


  • Any item with an RFID has its theft bit turned on – and left on, because they just hand the item to you around the barrier.

  • Hence when you walk into another branch that uses RFID, its alarm goes off right away.

  • On one of the many occasions this happened (at Gladstone), some queen leapt out of his seat and chased me up the stairs. I let him tell me his bullshit story – twice – about how he has to inspect my item. Then I told him I’d heard him the first time, I knew the system quite well, he didn’t have to chase me up the stairs, and we’ll fix it later.

    Upon checkout, there he was again. Proving for the umpteenth time that RFID involves more employees than ever, three other people listened to my conversation. (So now five people were checking out a single book.) Why wasn’t that book desensitized when it left its branch, I asked? Some branches do and some don’t, he told me repeatedly. So you’re saying some branches are incompetent and some aren’t, I politely declined to say. This went back and forth many times.

    Then, after I embarrassed the other three into going away, I told him he had a personal obligation to figure out a better way of talking to library patrons about its own systems’ failure than chasing them through the library like they’d just stolen a sweater from the Gap.

    At St. Clair/Dufferin half an hour later, the bored fashion victim behind the desk (who visibly had absolutely nothing to do) claimed he couldn’t desensitize the book. Really?

  • A book I had also checked out from North York that other day set off the alarm at the new, denuded, gutted, space-profligate Yorkville branch. (Gee, whatever did happen to those priceless solid marble countertops? I had asked well in advance of the renovation and got no answer. Now it’s laminate and green glass. Stay classy, TPL.)

    After the distracted chick behind the desk tried to get rid of me by directing me to the checkout station I had separately already used, she eventually deigned to pay attention long enough to desensitize the book. Except the alarm went off on the way out. (She made a nice, if corny, joke, so it wasn’t all bad.)

    I later talked to a competent person at St. James Town. My item from Yorkville was turned off; the North York book was still on. She fixed it. I made a bet with her that I’d still set off the alarm on the way out. I didn’t.

  • Oh, and did you know for a while St. James Town was hiding new DVDs behind the desk because “people take them”? You can’t do that in an RFID branch. Absolutely everything is open and available and borrowable without staff intervention. (I borrow magazines at RFID branches the minute I see them, not after the date stamped on them, if any.)

So: Let’s recap

  • On the (now clearly bullshit) premise of checking out the same number of items or more with unchanged staff complement, every branch, even Todmorden, is to be converted to RFID checkout at great cost. (Every item in the system has to have an RFID tag installed, often n tags for n-piece items.)

  • For this system to work:

    • Every item has to be instantly available and self-borrowable. Every item already isn’t.

    • Every item has to be desensitized upon checkout. Every item isn’t.

    • RFID branches sending items to non-RFID branches have to send those items pre-desensitized. They don’t.

The result? False alarms go off all over the place. And I assure you this is gonna start making the papers when it happens to befuddled grannies and grumpy right-leaning taxpayers, not just to me.

RFID: The microfiche of the 21st century. You’re gonna regret it. (And for the fifty billionth time, “RFID” is two syllables, not four: arphid.)

It’s easier to get into and out of North Korea than into and out of a branch while carrying an RFID-tagged item. Where’s that union when you need ’em?


5 thoughts on “NYPL DMZ RFID FAIL

  1. I hear you on the RFID ridiculousness, but most upseting is the news about the Yorkville remodel. They got rid of the marble countertops? NOT COOL, TPL. That was a gorgeous branch in so many ways… does it just look like a box-clone now or what?

  2. And also – no one at TPL has yet been able to explain to me why some branches desensitize and some don’t. What is the point of NOT desensitizing items? I don’t know…

    And who cares if you beep on the way in? It’s on the way out that matters.

  3. You eloquently voiced the frustration (cost, reliability, staff involvement …etc) associated with RFID in libraries. Its good for some but not for all and its certainly NOT a panacea.

Comments are closed.