Monday, April 13, 2015

Digital Libraries

The following is part of a piece I wrote for magazine writing class. The article was about robots entering libraries, and how they may revolutionize the way libraries function. What I find most interesting about this article is that even traditional analog media (aka books) are being surrounded by more and more digital interfaces. Now we are using computers to handle and retrieve books, which highlights how in the future, I see most (if not all) media turning to digital. 


Robots in some libraries are actually eliminating one of the basic jobs of a librarian: storing and retrieving books.

Robotic storage and retrieval systems have been used in shipping facilities and warehouses for almost two decades, but the technology was introduced to public libraries only about five years ago.

The British Library unveiled one of the world’s first and most advanced robotic systems in 2009 that has the ability to stores and retrieve about 7 million barcoded items. More recently, the James B. Hunt library opened at North Carolina State University in 2013 with “bookBot,” — a robotic system that can retrieve any one of 2 million books within minutes. The high-tech library was expensive, costing about $115 million, but the system has earned its keep.

“It has never lost a book,” said Honora Eskridge, director of Centennial Campus research services at N.C. State University. “The machine can self-audit, meaning it inventories every book on every shelf, and Hunt library has never reported a missing book.”

The system eliminates problems created by open stacks in traditional libraries. When the public is allowed to enter the stacks, books are inevitably misplaced and stolen. With really large libraries — especially those on university campuses — it’s impossible to perform comprehensive inventories. Eskridge said in traditional libraries, it’s generally assumed that 20 percent of a library’s collection is lost or missing.

BookBot ensures the collection is complete and eliminates the need for 10-digit call numbers. The robot orders books by size and not by genre or category, which means books aren’t permanently assigned to a shelf. The robot automatically sends returned books to empty spaces. And by ordering books by size, the robot takes 1/9th the space of traditional stacks.

Eskridge said the greatest advantage of the robot is not it’s really fast high-tech retrieval, or that it keeps people from constantly sorting through the stacks. She said the greatest advantage is its ability to make more space for people.

“At one point, there was so much space devoted to books, there was almost no room for people,” she said. “That’s what a library is about — space for people.”

This is what Nancy, Vincent and bookBot have in common. The robots are really not about the technology; they’re about the people.

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