The death of books – and, presumably, libraries – has been predicted by futurists for decades. We certainly seem to be headed that way with e-book readers and digital books taking the place of paper books. A new library facility at the University of Chicago blends the old with the new by replacing librarians and their rickety wooden ladders with a fascinating system of robots and a five-story underground storage facility.
In the $81 million Joe and Rika Monsueto Library, patrons walk into a beautiful light-filled room with a domed roof – and a noticeable lack of books. What patrons can’t see is the enormous depository of books just below their feet in the subterranean storage room. The storage area contains around 35,000 metal bins, all filled to capacity with books. The books are put into the bins by size, not by subject, allowing for the maximum amount of useable space in each. When a patron needs a book, they simply request it via computer database. That’s where the robots come in.
Huge robotic retrieval cranes move around among the stacks of bins to select the appropriate book. Because each book and each bin bears a unique bar code, the cranes can go right to the requested bin and deliver it to the circulation desk upstairs. The clerk finds the desired book and delivers it to the requester within about five minutes of the initial request. The underground book room is kept at optimal preservation conditions, meaning that the library will incur lower maintenance costs over the life of the system. As much as we dig technology, we’re sure going to miss hot librarians shushing us – that’s something the robots will never replace.