Friday, April 20, 2012

University of Chicago's robot-powered Mansueto Library

In May 2012, the University of Chicago's Joe and Rika Mansueto Library opened to the public.  What's special about this library? Robots.  Robots retrieving books from a 55-foot deep underground facility.  (Please see video above.) 

The library is really two physical parts--an above ground reading room that can hold 180 people, and a below ground storage area.  The reading room is a glass-enclosed ellipse with tables and computers.  The storage area is a chilly 60 degrees Fahrenheit warehouse that looks like something from the movie The Matrix.

Just as there are two physical parts, there are two approaches to resources--traditional books, and digitized books.  Like several other universities, University of Chicago has partnered with Google to digitize their collection, but they now have the capability to digitize their own books.  This process will typically take about 30 minutes.  They also have the equipment to clean and preserve old books, and even rebind them if they're falling apart.

What's interesting is that while they're embracing the future, they aren't abandoning the past.  Some schools have moved their printed collections to off sites, but this makes retrieval slow.  The Mansueto Library uses a high-density storage technique to hold the equivalent of 3.5 million volumes in one seventh of the space it would take in conventional rows and stacks.  Also, warehousing the books underground makes it easier to maintain the right temperature and humidity level to preserve them long term.

You wouldn't want a human to have to climb a 50-foot ladder to grab a book, but a robotic crane can do so quickly and safely.  When a student requests a book from storage, it only takes about fifteen minutes for the system to retrieve and process it.

A lot of people will visit this new library, however, only librarians are allowed to go down into the underground storage area.  I wish the library would offer tours, and let guests can see how the robot cranes work.  It would help people imagine how robots might help in their own lives and businesses. 

(The library site is here.  The video is from YouTube.)

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  1. Far out man!
    I was wondering how they would account for various cover styles and fragility found in library books. We can't have a robot grabbing a 300 year old book by the the cover all the while antique pages are fluttering about as they fall out. The secret is in the use of bins which an actual person then retrieves the correct book.
    I like automation as much as the next cyborg but there's something good about a library still requiring a librarian (or a freshman getting paid minimum wage).

    1. It's cool because the system calls for robots and humans to work together--and they each do what they're good at.

      Thanks for commenting!