Robots in the library!

December 27, 2006

A brief article from Wired tells about the use of robots in an academic library. At the Chicago State University Library, robots fetch materials from the stacks. The robots are not anthropomorphic, though. Rather, they resemble forklifts and run on tracks.

I had heard about such technology before, which involves the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips. It seems a little gimmicky at first glance; pretty much any other library could not afford such a system, and retrofitting to accommodate robots would be a headache. To enlighten myself further on the rationale for using robots, I found an article from the Chicago Sun-Times that goes into more detail than the Wired brief.

    Newbart, Dave. 2006. Robotic library makes it easy: Chicago State system retrieves books for you. Chicago Sun-Times (2 October).

Such a decision actually made sense for CSU. It was building a new library, and the extra room required to publicly display books would have cost quite a bit more money than the robot retrieval system. Also, as the article points out, the process can free time for library employees to do other things.

When I initially saw the Wired story, I didn’t think I’d mention it due to the “gimmick” factor. However, the implications of such a system are worth pondering.

The decision to have robot retrieval (or not) probably depends primarily on a library’s financial health. As I said before, I’d doubt that few libraries would have opportunities at present to adopt such a system. However, the prospect of having a new library might make robots seem more attractive.

Although cost would be a universal concern, the size of a collection (along with facility space) could affect decisions to integrate a robot retrieval system in a library. The CSU’s library has at least 800,000 materials in storage, while 250,000 remain in the regular stacks for browsing. Such a collection seems large enough to merit automated retrieval, especially with the opportunities presented in planning a new library. However, it seems problematic for smaller collections. While automated retrieval might seem practical in a large academic library, it would seem a bit silly in a small public library with limited funds, and where people might prefer to browse, anyway.

Expanding on numbers, the most problematic issue to me is the cut-off date for materials to go into a storage facility. However, such a question has nothing to do with the presence or absence of a robot retrieval system. Instead, it underscores a philosophical issue that transcends technology. How does one decide what goes into a storage facility? As in the case of CSU’s library, one could set a universal cutoff date for all disciplines, which makes a depository operation neat, quick, and efficient. Unfortunately, anyone who works in libraries will see right away the problems with just sending away everything published before a certain date. Going back to 1990 might be alright for disciplines where rapid change is a constant, as in the sciences and technology. In fact, one could even argue that such a cut-off date goes back too far for some disciplines. On the other hand, such a cut-off date would seem appalling to those in the humanities. For some patrons, any cut off date would not work.

Unless one uses circulation records for every item (which would take up way too much time for busy library staff), decisions about depositories will remain an arbitrary judgment call where one hopes that most patrons will be satisfied. One could say the same thing about retrieval robots, for that matter. Of course, if they can demonstrate a high degree of efficiency and accuracy, perhaps automated storage systems will be more practical for all involved. Who knows? Besides devoting more time to provide patrons with in-depth assistance, library staff can also have more time to figure out other ways to improve library services.

As a final question, would we eventually need to think about the issues to which I refer in my posting from last week about the rights of robots?


2 Responses to “Robots in the library!”

  1. Jason Says:

    Also worth looking at is a Scientific American article by Bill Gates, which ponders the potential for robots in the coming years.

  2. Gabriel Says:

    As a professor in the Library Science, Information & Media Studies program at CSU, I can say you raise a reasonable objection concerning a simple date cut off date for loading materials into the Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ROVER). However, the system is so quick that materials could be retrieved very quickly with the proper staff. The system will undoubtedly reduce casual browsing in the stacks for older materials because you have to check them out to see them. I’m not sure how ROVER can avoid this result.

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