Vendable Reading

Can a library have too many books? Of course not. But libraries can quickly run out of space to house their many collections. When faced with this problem colleges and universities have looked to traditional solutions like compact shelving or off-site warehousing. More and more, however, schools are investigating and installing automated library storage and retrieval systems, proving that the future is now.

Library storage and retrieval systems (LSRS) are a niche market of HK Systems. This privately held business delivers supply chain solutions to companies like Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, and John Deere.“We were doing an installation for IBM in Northridge, CA, and we saw that they were trying to fit their ‘1,000,000-book library into a five-pound bag,’” remembered HK Account Executive Todd Hunter.“We realized we could help make that happen.”

Automation on Display

The way a LSRS works is that books, periodicals, and other materials are cataloged by library staff. They are then placed in a bin in the LSRS room where a robot arm carries the bin to a specific shelf. When a book is needed a patron requests it either from a library computer or his or her own computer. Then the “gee whiz” factor begins.

A computer arm moves down an isle until it reaches the appropriate column. The arm then lifts, often as high as four stories, to locate the correct bin. Once the bin is found the arm grabs it and brings it to a conveyor belt. The bin is then transported to a library staff member who picks the requested item from the bin and delivers it to the circulation desk and the eager student’s hands. Total wait time? About 10 minutes. The process is so compelling that many libraries display the LSRS behind glass so patrons can watch the show.

This system offers clear advantages from off site-storage. “Materials stored in off-site facilities can take hours or days to get to the reader,” said Hannelore B. Rader, dean of university libraries at the University of Louisville. “And off-site storage facilities are not cheap.” Not cheap indeed. Off-site facilities need staff, security, and climate control; all of the elements that make any building expensive to run. Physically transporting the books, especially in inclement weather, poses another economic and logistical challenge.

Compact Solutions

Compact shelving, another popular solution, solves the time-lag problem. Here, several shelves are squeezed together in one long mass. If a book is needed from one of the inside shelves a button or lever is activated, temporarily opening the shelves and allowing access to the material.

Housing compact shelves on site proves a valid alternative but takes up a lot of space and remains expensive. Books on the shelves are not browsable and shelf height is limited. “When planning our renovation and addition we realized that compact shelving still required a large footprint,” recalled Joanne A. Schneider, university librarian for Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. “A cost assessment revealed that, for us, the price tag for an automated system would be about half — $5 million vs. $10 million for compact shelving — and that clinched the deal.”

Choosing What to Store In the LSRS

Most libraries choose to house their secondary or tertiary collections in a LSRS. “We started by housing our bound journals and any item that hasn’t been circulated in five years in the system,” said Barbara Butler, dean of the university library for Sonoma State University. “That has been so successful that we are going to start putting more widely circulated materials in it.”

Colgate University’s entire library is presently housed in its LSRS. While this is a temporary solution during the facility’s renovation, it has been a useful one. “We originally thought we could stay in the building during the construction, but the noise was too much,” said Schneider. As the small campus does not have the luxury of any vacant buildings on or near the school, they decided to install the LSRS first and put their 450,000 highest-used volumes into it. The remaining 230,000 books are in offsite storage and are inaccessible during the construction.

Any book or other media a Colgate student might want must be requested through the system and picked up. Because of the high volume of requests, it takes from one to two hours to fulfill an order. “All of this will change once the new library opens,” explained Schneider. “But for now our short-term problem is solved.”

A LSRS room is climate-controlled, meaning that even rare collections are safe within the bins. Another unexpected advantage came to light during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The library at California State University, Northridge received considerable damage and had to be demolished. “Our automated storage and retrieval system suffered minimal harm,” reported Marianne Afifi, associate dean, Oviatt Library, California State University, Northridge. “There was some warping that took a few days to fix, but none of the bins fell.”

Minimal Maintenance

In fact, all users report little to no failures with the system. As with any mechanical device maintenance must be performed, but by and large the physical and software systems perform with out a hitch. “We do run a hotline if there is any trouble and perform a quarterly maintenance,” said Hunter. “But these machines are designed to work 365 days a year. They are quite robust.”

And that heartiness allows a library’s beauty to shine through. Because so much material is stored in a LSRS the rest of the facility is free to open up. Browsable stacks, an important part of any library, become roomy, low-height and comfortable. Open space invites discussion and study groups. “We have room for a 24-hour café area now,” said Rader. “The library has become a welcoming place to spend time.”

More than just a soft advantage, this reflects the change in teaching from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” “This new pedagogy demands group work space with access to all kinds of media,” insisted Schneider. “The new library needs to be a community center and not a warehouse for books.”

One really big, really cool vending machine can make it happen.

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