Sunday, June 6, 2010

Libraries of the future?

Meeting that someone special in the stacks will be diminished now.

"To manage its storage needs, UMKC library goes vertical with retrieval robots"


Edward Eveld

June 4th, 2010

The Kansas City Star

When a library needs more space for books, what are the options? Expensive construction, for one. Or off-site storage, which creates a checkout hassle.

Or go seriously vertical with massive steel shelving –– and call in a book robot for retrieval.

That’s what the folks at UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library decided to do. The robot is an automated system scheduled to begin operation this summer. It will be the only one like it in the region.

Library workers recently began loading books and other items into hundreds of bins, each of which has a cubbyhole in one of several four-story steel structures. About 80 percent of the library’s collection eventually will be stored there.

Want a book? A 58-foot robotic crane will zoom down a narrow passageway between the structures, find and pull the bin and deliver it to a docking station and librarian. The process will take less than four minutes.

Perhaps libraries of the future will go bookless, but for now, many are struggling to house growing collections, which include not only books but microfilm, recordings and other materials.

Seventeen libraries in North America have turned to automated storage and retrieval systems. None is in Missouri or Kansas. The University of Chicago also is currently installing one.

Libraries everywhere are contemplating their options, said Sharon Bostick, dean of libraries at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“Our library is full. We’re packed to the gills,” Bostick said.

For UMKC, Bostick said, the automated system was economical, and the new storage area protects the collections with environmental controls and keeps them safe from theft.

More important, though, is the real estate the system saves.

“If we built a conventional facility holding the same number of items, it would take seven times the space,” said Bonnie Postlethwaite, UMKC associate dean of libraries.

The collection served by the robot is located in a 31,000-square-foot addition to the main library building. The robot and addition cost $20 million, and the total library renovation project is $70 million.

By moving much of the collection to the automated system, library renovation can focus on such improvements as new study areas, computer labs, meeting rooms, event spaces and an expanded cafe.

“What’s happened over the past 40 years is that as the collection continued to grow, it pushed out room for the students,” said Mark Mattison, library advancement officer.

When the automated system is fully loaded, it will contain about 800,000 items. Two cranes service the two shelving structures filled with bins. A third crane prowls another structure that houses larger carts, each able to handle 2,000 pounds.

About 200,000 books and other materials will remain on open shelves in the original library building. Which brings up the robot’s downside –– reduced opportunity for browsing.

With conventional library shelves, it’s easy to peruse the book you want, plus books shelved nearby. Not so with the robot. Mattison said enhancements to the library’s online catalog would help, including more detailed descriptions of items, tables of contents, book jacket images and even library call numbers of books that would be shelved close by.

High-tech storage and retrieval systems like the book robot — built by Wisconsin’s HK Systems — are typically used in warehouse and production facilities. The Kansas City Star uses them for newsprint rolls and advertising inserts.

“This is going to become more commonplace for libraries,” Bostick said.

Once the robot is in action this summer, the curious will be able to watch the cranes from outside through a one-story-tall window on the library addition.

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