• December 21, 2014

A High-Tech Library Keeps Books at Faculty Fingertips—With Robot Help

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Adam Alexander for The Chronicle

Judith Nadler, director and university librarian at the U. of Chicago, shows off the new library’s futuristic reading room, topped by an elliptical glass dome. The library now eclipses the brightly colored Max Palevsky dorms as the first structure that students show visiting guests.

At the University of Chicago's new library, 70 students have summer jobs filling a chilly subterranean bunker 50 feet beneath the main reading room. Their mission: Load a million volumes into a machine-dominated warehouse that most library patrons will never see.

"You feel like you're feeding this giant robot," says Victoria Lee, an anthropology major who earns $11.15 an hour stuffing bound journals into steel bins. Ms. Lee's insatiable robot is a computer system that directs mechanical cranes to store those bins in giant stacks and retrieve them when patrons request their contents.

Another "bookless library" for the digital age? No. For all its gee-whiz gadgetry, the building is actually an $81-million bet that researchers still need ready access to a much older technology: print.

Like other libraries, Chicago's faced the problem of bulging stacks. But unlike others, it didn't relieve that crunch by exiling collections to remote locations or disposing of little-used holdings. Its underground storage system can place a bound volume in faculty fingers less than five minutes after getting the request.

That technology may be coming soon to a library near you. A small but growing group of universities has already adopted it. As more confront building decisions over the next decade, a "significant number" will very likely go the Chicago route, predicts Richard W. Boss, a former university librarian at Prince­ton who does technology consulting for libraries.

At Chicago, the facility houses dissertations, special collections, government documents, and journals that are available digitally. It's stuff researchers can look up in an online catalog but don't need to browse on open shelves. And by offloading this ma­terial into underground storage, Chicago is freeing up space to keep traditional books in open stacks at the adjoining Joseph Regenstein Library, where a patron can continue to scan shelves the old-fashioned way.

All in all, the complex amounts to a mecca for accessible print at the heart of campus—a vision that runs counter to many recent headlines about libraries, to put it mildly. "Is A Bookless Library Still a Library?" Time magazine asked this month, in an article that featured Drexel University's new Library Learning Terrace, which boasts rows of computers and "nary a bound volume." Or take NPR's 2010 piece: "Stanford Ushers in the Age of Bookless Libraries."

Chicago professors and librarians say their building reflects the needs of researchers in the digital-and-print hybrid world that actually exists, not a vaunted future of universal online access to everything.

The reality, today, is that Chicago acquires about 150,000 volumes a year. A huge amount of the library's print collection still circulates. Copyright law prevents the university from offering full digital access to about 80 percent of its holdings. And digitization efforts like Google Books, transformative as they are, have touched only a fraction of the letters, diaries, speeches, and other obscure materials that are of interest to scholars.

"The notion that somehow there's this grand digital utopia—it's just baloney," says Andrew Abbott, a sociology professor who has been heavily involved with the library planning.

The Bibliodome

Chicago's new building, the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, has become a central campus attraction since opening in May. With a ground-floor reading room that is topped by an elliptical glass dome, the library now eclipses the brightly colored Max Palevsky dorms as the first structure that students show visiting guests. The library's futuristic underground bunker reminds one professor of the closing scenes in Terminator. Nicknames abound: the Bibliodome, the Egg, Mansweat. For all the attention, though, Mansueto is actually not even a stand-alone library. You can only get to it through Regenstein next door, a Brutalist limestone structure from 1970 that houses 4.5 million books.

As an older university, Chicago was unusually lucky to have so much central campus space to expand its library system, and the reason has to do with a historical quirk. In 1940, the university's president canceled football. He saw the sport as "a waste of time," Mr. Abbott says. The stadium was torn down, and Regenstein went up where it once stood. To build Mansueto, Chicago sacrificed even more athletic space on the altar of books, displacing tennis courts that had occupied the site.

Judith Nadler, director and university librarian, leads a visitor into an elevator that tunnels 50 feet down to the floor of Mansueto's warehouse. Instead of the musty smell of book-filled stacks, the first thing that strikes you is the cold. The tempera­ture is 60 degrees, gently chilled to preserve the 3.5 million volumes that can be stored here. Each degree under 65 adds at least a year to the longevity of printed materials, Mr. Boss has written.

The next thing you notice is the line of wooden carts along the wall. These hold the collections that Ms. Nadler's team of student loaders is feeding into the 24,000 bins. Many are bound volumes of periodicals, like the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, or old documents, like a box of Illinois Supreme Court opinions from 1972 to 1974.

"We loaded yesterday over 20,000 books in one day," gushes Ms. Nadler. "I was just jumping around. It's magnificent."

The reason you can stuff so many books into a system like Mansueto's is that they are stored by size rather than library classification. Each item has a bar code that students scan before loading it into a bin, so the "robot" knows where everything is.

And the robot is fast.

Back up at the ground-floor circulation center, David N. Borycz, project manager at the library, demonstrates what happens when a patron wants an item. He uses the online library catalog to request a dissertation, "God's Gardeners," by David Kenneth Larsen. A few clicks and it's in the retrieval queue. Then a nearby door slides open. One of the five mechanical cranes has delivered up the bin to a small loading dock. And there, tucked among a series of other bound maroon volumes, is Mr. Larsen's dissertation.

It all takes about three minutes.

Companies have used automated storage technology since the 1960s, filling similar bins with wine bottles and car parts, but libraries have been slower to adopt it. Mr. Boss estimates that fewer than 25 American academic libraries have installed such systems, a group that includes Eastern Michigan and Colgate Universities, and the University of Nevada campuses at Reno and Las Vegas. Some hold far fewer books than Chicago's. Several experts point to California State University at Northridge, whose automated system dates to 1991, as the pioneer.

"It was looked upon as sort of radical," says Todd Hunter, account executive at Dematic, the company that built the Chicago facility. (In 2010, Dematic bought another firm, HK Systems, that had installed a number of similar systems in other academic libraries.) Lack of browsability tends to provoke some resistance, he says. But the rise of online information sources has made automated print storage "much more acceptable."

Ms. Nadler made the case for her new library in 2006, the same week Google announced five university partners in its program to digitize the world's books. Not the ideal time to pitch a new palace of print. But the librarian says that "there will always be room and need for a certain amount of materials in the original form and within easy reach."

At the same time, Ms. Nadler is embracing e-books. Her library started contributing to Google Books in 2010, and Mansueto includes space for digitizing texts.

Obscure Sources

The case for keeping print within reach is more complex than fuzzy rhetoric about the joy of serendipitous browsing. The research habits of Adrian Johns, a history professor at Chicago, give you a sense of why.

Mr. Johns specializes in the history of the book; his recent work, Piracy, traces the intellectual-property wars from Gutenberg to Bill Gates. When a reporter visited his bright, fifth-floor office re­cently, the bespectacled British historian had just returned from a trip to Glasgow. He was interested in Robert Andrew Macfie, a 19th-century sugar magnate and member of Parliament who ran the first big campaign to abolish intellectual-property rights. A lot of Macfie material hasn't been digitized: pamphlets, election manifestoes, correspondence. Much probably never will be, because there's little economic incentive.

Then there are books themselves. Before industrial printing in the 19th century, printing was done by hand. Texts changed from copy to copy, and those changes, along with annotations in the margins, are meaningful to scholars investigating specific research questions.

Mr. Johns reaches into a plastic bag to fetch a vellum-bound, four-inch-tall copy of Francis Bacon's essays, a Latin edition published in 1644. He points to notes scrawled in the margins in French. "If you want to understand what people were making of Bacon, you need to follow through on things like that," he says.

The professor is no Luddite. He uses specialized databases like Early English Books Online. But you don't get the stuff in the margins—important traces of how people thought—from the typical clean digital scans. We're nowhere near the point where people doing serious research, especially on historical topics, can rely solely on digital sources, Mr. Johns says. "Compared to the variety that exists out in the printed world, Google is just skimming the surface," he says.

But that printed world is so vast that many universities lack space to keep it on campus. In a 2006 report, Mr. Abbott surveyed Chicago's peers: over five million volumes, about one third of Harvard's collection, in a facility 30 miles from Cambridge; 1.3 million of Duke's volumes five miles off-site; two million Columbia books 50 miles away; two million Yale books four miles off-site.

Mr. Abbott, chair of Chicago's library board, argues that access to materials drives their use. As he sees it, putting materials in off-site storage, where retrieving them can take days, is tantamount to throwing them away. "If you actually know how library research is done, you realize that off-site storage was a disaster," he says.

Could that "disaster" be Chicago's opportunity?

Yes, claims Mr. Abbott: "As other major libraries remove research materials to off-site storage, Regenstein will become one of the only remaining large open-stack facilities in the country," he wrote in that 2006 report. "It is thus likely to become a mecca for scholars undertaking those kinds of research that require heavy stack-scanning of relatively unusual materials."

And what if Mr. Abbott is wrong, and the digital world eventually does triumph? What if books disappear? Chicago's library is flexible. Regenstein can be repurposed into classrooms or something, Mr. Abbott says. Even in this online utopia, plenty of obscure stuff won't be digitized, he says, and Chicago will still need Mansueto to store it. Which means those robotic cranes will be hauling paper for decades to come.


 

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