The Library Reloaded: Library Cards

Photo by NJLA/Flickr While I was taking a break working on a blog entry, this post by Patrick Sweeney about getting rid of library cards showed up in my Google Reader. He talks about replacing library cards with user names and passwords, with authentication control happening at the library locations. I thought this was such a different take on the one traditional part of the library experience that I started to write a reply. What I wrote grew beyond what felt like a simple note so I decided to drop my current post and craft this one.

So,  with the spirit of Patrick’s post in mind (getting rid of library cards), I started to think about what existing technology that we have now that could be adopted to fit this ultimate goal. In leaning back in my desk chair and rolling the puzzle around in my head, I brought it down to a few requirements: provide the same level of authentication (for privacy), provide the same level of permissions on and off site (for access), and be arguably easier and cheaper than the process it replaces (issuing library cards). Under those guidelines, I’d like to propose some additional alternatives to the library card (with varying degrees of viability).

1.) Cell phone wallet: Popular in the countries like Japan and South Korea, your library card information is stored on your mobile device. Simply by swiping your phone on a signal reader, you can use it for all of your library business (e.g. checking your account, borrowing materials). Computers in the library could be fitted with readers. For offsite authentication (such as remote account and database access), the user could simply retrieve their stored card number from the phone.

The major con for this is that not everyone has a cell phone, whether they are too young (think babies, toddlers, kindergarten through whenever their parents want to five them phones) or they cannot afford one with cell phone wallet capability. While the technology is popular in other countries, it has not taken off in the United States. In addition, this could also pose account management issues with people wanting to lend their card to others to check out materials, use computers, and other situations of permissible card lending. Unlike a card, a cell phone does not lend itself as well to lending.

2.) Fingerprint Scanner: No need to carry a card when you are using your fingerprint for authentication. Fingerprint scanners have come down in price to being under $100, a figure that is relatively easy to reach. Just scan your thumb or forefinger at the circulation desk or computer lab to prove your identity. It’s more reliable and secure than a library card since fingerprints are a unique biometric. The patron’s privacy is secure behind the fingerprint; it also completely removes the need to remember a library card while providing an accurate way of identifying patrons.

As nifty as this would be, it completely fails the off site authentication test. It would have to rely on a supplemental piece of material so that people could remotely access accounts and databases. However, for libraries where the materials and databases are not generally reached offsite (think of certain types of special libraries), this might be the right approach to securing access to sensitive materials. Like the cell phone wallet, it also creates the same issues for lending of library cards or allowing multiple people to use a card. Also, it does not address the issue of the small number of people who are without hands.

(My next suggestion doesn’t get rid of the library card, per se. However, I think it does present another possibility to the alternative of the library card.)

3.) A hybrid RFID card/’one button’ authenticator: Ok, so this device doesn’t exist, but it does take two types of existing technologies that would not work for the purposes of this idea experiment and put them together. Yes, it’s still something people would need to carry, but I think it could have broader implications and aspirations for a simple library card.

The RFID provides the on site identification for materials. Swipe the card past a reader, do your library business, done. I think the potential for RFID in libraries goes further by acting as a library card in multiple locations. The idea of a single card being able to access multiple locations (for example, your library, your state’s library, and the Library of Congress) would be the ideal; a single library card to access everything.

The one button authenticator provides the off side identification. Pressing the button provides a unique and time sensitive series of numbers to be entered into the interface to provide access. This is used currently in the private sector for secure computer networks (including the largest massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, World of Warcraft, with over 13 million players) Within a combined system, it could provide remote access to accounts and subscription materials for a spectrum of libraries.

While it solves the problems of remote access that are shared by the cell phone wallet and fingerprinting, each technology carries its own baggage. RFID has privacy and security implications that make it a vulnerable means while the ‘one button’ authenticator has the chance of failing like any other computer chip. In addition, there is the additional cost this would incur in the form of cards, readers, and staff training.

I will admit that it is a bit of technology overkill for solving a simpler problem, but it was still fun to imagine. I really liked Patrick’s post because it was bold in its questioning of a status quo. Perhaps libraries won’t replace cards, but it doesn’t hurt to go back and examine practices to either reaffirm, renovate, or remove them. It is this kind of inquiry that tests the boundaries and makes the occupation and practice more interesting to me.

Overall, I think there are alternatives to library cards, but it is on a location and library type basis. There are enough nuances to this that, in the right situation, a library could replace their cards with something else. Perhaps it is on this micro scale that card alternatives could be considered, so long as it is a true replacement and capable of community-wide acceptance. In any case, I wouldn’t think it would be a daring statement to say that anything that eases the patron-library interaction would be possible welcome addition.

 

Previous Library Reloaded post: Collections

AndyW

Comments

Scanners just like cards

Scanner software does not usually keep track of the entire fingerprint information. It converts the information to a number, just like a barcode, which is the only information kept within the library system.

Microchip

Why not put a RFID microchip in your patrons? Then you can just run an RFID wand over them. Preferably the chip should be in the back of the hand or in the forehead.

could the chip blink red when the borrower is blocked?

that would be the coolest if the chip was in the palm of the hand like in Logan's Run!

fingerprints... ummm...

libraries need to store less patron data, not more. if fingerprints become a standard form of personal id, then libraries will become criminal candy stores with thousands of identities waiting to be stolen. we take name, birthdate, address, phone, email... other than birthdate (unless you use some social networking sites), all that other stuff is easy to find in public sources. and besides H1N1 scares and cleaning the reader between users, I don't want the responsibility for when Ethan Hunt "borrows" my fingerprint so he can complete his next impossibly stupid mission.

library card numbers link to no other personal information; you can't use a library card number to get a credit card... "a single library card to access everything" just makes everything worse when the patron (inevitably) loses it. I don't like the domino effect: I don't want one flaw in security to take down the whole system. I don't want someone who breaks into my car to then be able to access my home. Or who finds my phone and is then legally married to my wife because my phone is my identity.

my library card is in my wallet. it's extremely thin and takes little space. if I forget it, I can still borrow materials by showing another form of id and the librarian will probably give me a new card for free that I can lose all over again. It's a somewhat archaic, but yet, elegant system. I don't want to change it.

Point by point

(1) "libraries need to store less patron data, not more."

Ok, I can see that. I can only presume this means we store too much information as it is or that a fingerprint record goes too far. I can see it from the point of view that people would be concerned as to having their fingerprints shared with law enforcement or other entities, so I could understand that as a strike against using it. As it stands now, the statutes and laws require law enforcement to get court supeonas to access patron records.

(2) "if fingerprints become a standard form of personal id, then libraries will become criminal candy stores with thousands of identities waiting to be stolen. we take name, birthdate, address, phone, email... other than birthdate (unless you use some social networking sites), all that other stuff is easy to find in public sources. and besides H1N1 scares and cleaning the reader between users, I don't want the responsibility for when Ethan Hunt "borrows" my fingerprint so he can complete his next impossibly stupid mission."

I don't understand how fingerprint data suddenly tips the scale for identity theft in the case of the library. Your better arguing point is that fingerprint scanners could be duped by printouts of people's fingerprints, which has been demonstrated. I'm not sure if this is still an issue now, but something that the technology is certainly working to address. You go on about how all of this information can be found on social websites, so wouldn't that be the easier option? I have not heard nor seen any story that suggests that libraries are a current vulnerability point for identity theft. And there's nothing you have presented to say that the use of a fingerprint, a unique biometric, could suddenly become a major security issue. (References to the Mission Impossible *movie* series is not solid evidence.)

(3) "library card numbers link to no other personal information; you can't use a library card number to get a credit card... "a single library card to access everything" just makes everything worse when the patron (inevitably) loses it. I don't like the domino effect: I don't want one flaw in security to take down the whole system. I don't want someone who breaks into my car to then be able to access my home. Or who finds my phone and is then legally married to my wife because my phone is my identity."

One library card that is capable of providing proof at multiple locations could lead to this? Based on the examples presented, I presume you keep your car keys and houses keys on separate key rings; and that your wife is married to the person who owns the phone, not the individual. You should have just stuck with the stronger point that you don't want *one* card or device to be capable of multiple access points. There is nothing suggested that this "one library card" would cross over to equal access across the board. The cell phone wallet works for countries in which cell phone use is predominant and carrying around wallet is less so. It fills a niche, a technological use that makes life easier in those places. Outside of a crowbar, I have yet to see any device that offers universal access to houses, cars, and people's library books (if I was standing at the desk swinging a crowbar, you'd give me my books!).

(4) "my library card is in my wallet. it's extremely thin and takes little space. if I forget it, I can still borrow materials by showing another form of id and the librarian will probably give me a new card for free that I can lose all over again. It's a somewhat archaic, but yet, elegant system. I don't want to change it."

This is your best argument and the only one you should have made. It's simple, it's easy, and it's insanely hard to refute. It suggests that there is no good alternative to library cards. It may also miss my point that this is about considering alternative means of authentication, but it's secondary to the simplicity and eloquence in the rebuttal presented.

I need to learn to add smileys

I'd say that two-thirds of my post was silliness... so tell Blake to enable emoticons and next time, I'll plaster my future replies with them...

the car, the wife, are just supplemental (silly) examples, not directly tied to the library card. meaning, I would not use any convenient system, such as an auto security system that also unlocks my house door, or some futuristic form of ID that allows a thief to steal one object, like a phone, and gain control of my entire life. these are not real examples arguing against your library card ideas.

and yes, I believe that if libraries were to store fingerprints locally, these would become targets for theft... just like I tell my coworkers not to ever talk about all the money stored in the copier cash box... just thinking like a criminal...

library card

The problem or more precisely the lack of a problem to begin with... The library card I already have in my wallet can access every library in the county I actually live in as well as the neighboring county which is also in a neighboring state by the way, and I only need to enter my card number to access both systems from any computer I happen to be using! A bigger problem we should be addressing in the library world is how to pull kids away from the TV and video games long enough to actually read a book!

It depends

So far as watching TV or playing video games, I would say it depends on what they are watching and why they are watching it. If it's educational programming, why demand that they pick up a book instead? I wouldn't inclined to demand that my child stop watching a show about dolphins so they can pick up a book about dolphins. If they are watching it for the sake of doing so or watching programs of little or no information value, then maybe they are looking for something else to do.

As it relates to video gaming, the studies coming out now show that it develops other sets of skills. Not simply hand eye coordination, but problem solving and social skills skills as well (depending on the game). There is learning that goes on when children deploy and test different types of solutions or work with others to overcome a problem. As the games increase in complexity, so does the skills being applied.

You are presenting a hierarchy of activity where book reading trumps television watching or gaming and there is no reason that it should. Book reading is not the solution to every question as to what children should be doing.

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