Roblog: The Library of the Future

Roblog is a weekly column dedicated to understanding the world of robotics. If science fiction is right and the impending robot apocalypse is real, it can’t hurt to be prepared. Come back every Wednesday for a new blog of robot rants.

Many of the most interesting robots are tucked away in factories or sent into space where the average person never has a chance to see them. This could soon change if the robotic library concept that’s spreading throughout US colleges is successful. Already functioning at colleges like University of Chicago’s  Joe and Rika Mansueto Library or Colgate University Libraries and coming soon to colleges like University of Missouri – Kansas City, robot libraries are possibly the biggest innovation in book storage since inventory catalogs were put online.

In these robotic libraries, books are not stored on shelves but are tucked away in a storage facility. Books are organized and shelved into rows of tightly packed boxes, which can only be accessed by a robotic arm. In the Manuseuto Library, the system works by letting students request a book from their online catalog. Once the book is requested, the robotic arm gets a signal to retrieve that book from the stacks and brings it to the circulation desk.

On one hand, this type of robotic library system has huge advantages. The most obvious benefit is space. Books can be stored much more efficiently than on typical shelves, so it eliminates the need for large libraries to have off-site storage. It also helps to keep books in better condition. The storage rooms can be temperature controlled, and the books are kept safe from fire damage in their boxes. In particularly large college libraries where rarely used books may be deep in storage, this system also allows for quick book retrieval. Even in the Mansueto Library’s collection of 3.5 million volumes, a robot can retrieve any book within a few minutes, which would be impossible for a human librarian.

A robotic arm reaches in to grab a book from a tightly packed shelf. | Photo courtesy user Dcoetzee via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s something particularly odd about these robot libraries, of course, in that they hardly seem like libraries at all. Half of the library experience is perusing the shelves looking for a spine that catches your eye. It’s rather comforting to meander through dimly lit stacks, feeling the worn covers of books and smelling their musky scent. It can be said that robotic libraries completely eliminate the thrill of the hunt and the joy of a good find.

Don’t discount them, however, just because they aren’t traditional. The truth is, most libraries won’t be transitioning to this system any time soon. Libraries with robotic retrieval systems are those with huge collections of books, many of which aren’t checked out for years at a time. The growing reality is that many students do their research almost exclusively online. These old books are often needed only as a second

The Mansueto Library, though without a bookshelf in sight, is a beautiful place to ready or study. | Photo courtesy user Ragettho via Wikimedia Commons
The Mansueto Library, though without a bookshelf in sight, is a beautiful place to ready or study. | Photo courtesy user Ragettho via Wikimedia Commons

resort, and keeping them stored compactly and safely is a smart idea. Also, though the joy of the book hunt may be diminished in robotic libraries, the experience isn’t ruined. Because the books are stored safely underground, libraries have more room for classrooms and seating areas, as well as more freedom in their design. The Mansueto Library, for example, has a beautiful glass enclosure that lets in natural light for peaceful daytime studying.

There’s no doubt that automatic book retrieval systems are changing the way that people think about libraries. In a world that’s increasingly focused on efficiency, robotic libraries are an incredible innovation that will allow colleges to keep larger collections in smaller spaces and in better conditions. Ultimately, robotic libraries can give patrons access to more information. Don’t worry, many libraries will continue to remain as technologically ancient as they are. But if the trend continues, we might be seeing more robots than ever in places where we least expect them.

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.

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