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Vatican Tags Ancient Books

In order to keep its ancient collection safe, the Vatican library has turned to a cutting edge technology, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, to track its collection’s whereabouts
( [email protected] ) Oct 15, 2004 03:15 PM EDT

The Vatican City library is home to one of the most prestigious collections of ancient biblical texts. About 1.6 million books are among a 40 million piece collection contained within the library walls. The pieces in the library are invaluable – including the oldest known complete Bible. In order to keep the ancient collection safe, the Vatican library has turned to a cutting edge technology, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, to track its collection’s whereabouts.

Since the library implemented the RFID system last year, over 30,000 books have been tagged with the technology. Two million out of the 40 million piece collection are slated to be tagged in the near future.

Radio frequency tags serve a purpose similar to the venerable bar-code. Just as bar codes are placed on inventory so the item can be identified with a reader, RFID tags inserted into items can also be read. The difference is that RFID emits radio waves over distance when receiving a radio signal, both preventing the item from being removed from the library without authorization, and greatly facilitating the inventory taking process.

RFID technology is not expensive – the most prohibitive part of the equipment is the number of RFID stickers and radio frequency readers you can purchase. The tags cost only $.05 to $.10 each, a worthwhile investment for the Vatican’s priceless collection.

Emilia Di Bernardo, vice-president of Seret, the company that integrated RFID into the Vatican’s collection, says that the Vatican library staff approached her about three years ago requesting help.

"Initially, all they wanted was an efficient inventory," she says. "We didn't even think about using RFID three years ago. It was considered such a new type of use for that technology.

"But we came up with something that is not only an inventory but a way to manage the books. This way staff always know where all the books are."

Although the program is in its relative infancy, the dramatic benefits of the new technology can already be felt. For instance, taking the library inventory is an annual process that used to shut down the library for an entire month out of the year. By utilizing RFID technology, it can now be done in less than a day, without even needing to close the library.

It is possible that we are seeing only the beginning of the RFID tag’s implementation, and that the very same tags may help us check out library books or pay for our credit and debit card transactions not to far into the future.