Broken pledge
Library votes to fund tracking system before promised hearing

By Matthew Hirsch

The San Francisco Library Commission has moved forward on a controversial new technology before holding a hearing that had been promised to critics.

A Feb. 19 vote tentatively authorized funding for an automated materials tracking system called radio frequency identification (RFID), a technology that privacy rights advocates and some health experts say does not belong in the public domain. The decision came before a March 4 public forum that was supposed to give critics a chance to dissuade members of the Library Commission from funding RFID.

City Librarian Susan Hildreth agreed last October to host the RFID forum before the budget vote (see "Library Adopts RFID," 10/15/03). San Francisco Public Library officials then delayed the event until March because they were "overloaded" by state funding deadlines for five branch improvement projects, Hildreth told the Bay Guardian. She downplayed the decision to include RFID funding in the library budget, because the action can be reversed at a later Library Commission meeting.

"We just moved a budget document forward, because that was a timetable we had to meet," Hildreth told us. The SFPL expects to spend $580,182 switching from bar codes to RFID in the Main Library and the Excelsior Branch Library. Installing RFID throughout the entire library system, once thought to cost about $1 million, is now projected to run more than $3 million over five years.

Several consumer and public interest groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, oppose the widespread introduction of RFID without careful limitations on how and where it is used. Both groups will send representatives to the forum. Other RFID panelists represent the Berkeley Public Library, the Peninsula Library System, the UC Berkeley Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Departments, and the Boalt Hall School of Law.

"If this was a real forum, it would have taken place before the library's budget was forwarded to the mayor," Doug Loranger, founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union, told us. Loranger opposes RFID for its potential health implications.

As of press time, library officials had only just confirmed the time of the forum, and they had not yet begun publicizing the event. Most library activities are listed on the SFPL Web site as much as two months in advance.

The San Francisco Public Library forum on radio-frequency identification takes place March 4, 6-8 p.m., San Francisco Public Library, Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin, S.F. (415) 557-4400.

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February 25, 2004