Biometric Access

Enabling patrons to log in and check out with a swipe of the finger

May 26, 2015

Ernest Dixon

As libraries embrace their modern identities as technology hubs, the methods of providing access to their services must constantly adapt. The evolving high-tech options we provide to patrons require that we also keep these options safe and secure. Although in widespread use in the private and public sector, biometric security options have been slow to reach libraries—whether because of a lack of understanding of the technology or because of misinformation about the system.

Paul Sawyier Public Library implemented a biometric identification system in October 2008. Since then, patrons who sign up for a library card have the option to enroll in the finger identification system, which is required only when using the public computers and the media box located in the lobby. To check out materials or log on to computers using the system, a patron simply places his or her finger on the biometric scanner located at each station. Patrons checking out other materials can use their library cards as they always have.

The main misconception about biometric finger identification is that the system captures and stores a full image of your fingerprint. Not so. Instead, the fingerprint is enrolled in our system by taking a variable amount of vector measurements. None of these measurements are stored but are converted into a number using an algorithm. This number is then tied to a patron’s library card number. When a user places his or her finger on the scanner, the software enters the library card number into whatever text field is in use by the computer.

There are currently 21,096 different users enrolled in the system, and response has been positive. Many patrons cite the convenience of using finger scans in place of a card as one of the main pros. Patrons have the option to speak to the director if they have concerns about using the system, but—to date—only four have done so.

The biometric system has greatly increased security on public computers, as users must be logged on either by using their finger scans or by directly asking an employee. While many patrons still use their library cards to check out books, they become curious when watching other patrons check out using their fingers and, in turn, often decide to enroll in the system.

Some drawbacks include the occasional patron whose fingers simply will not work with the system, usually because of wear to the fingerprint or poor circulation. Also, the fingerprint readers and the systems will occasionally disconnect and need to be rebooted. Many patrons will also lose or misplace their library cards after using the biometric system. When a patron needs his or her card number to use online resources, a replacement will need to be reissued. There was also the drawback of figuring out how to log guests onto the computers without having to use a finger scan.

Advances in technology have helped with obtaining more accurate initial scans at enrollment. People who had trouble with their fingers not reading well on the scanners have found that it works better after reenrolling with the newer scanners. We began using Envisionware to create guest reservations and allow patrons to log on by typing in their information. Just software and hardware improvements have made the process more accurate and reliable.

Overall, the biometric system has been a great success and has brought many positive changes to our library. Patrons enjoy the system and, now that it has been in place for more than six years, many of the issues that cropped up initially have been solved over time. Biometric identification is a safe and secure way for patrons to access library services and should be considered by libraries looking for new technology to improve their ability to serve their users.


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