Will BookBots be the revolution libraries are looking for?


    The "BookBot" glides down a row of drawers at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University. (AP File Photo/Allen Breed)

    This piece is part of our “Rebirth Of The Library” show. Take a look at the rest of our stories here.

    Temple University’s main library – Paley Library – was built in the late 1960s as a domineering slab of concrete Brutalism devoted to the noble cause of housing books. Most of it 215,000 square feet is devoted to shelving two million books and thousands of linear feet of documents.

    “It’s a big, square warehouse with user space at the margins – literally around the exterior of the building. It was thought of as a warehouse for books,” said Temple’s dean of libraries, Joseph Lucia, whose office is deep inside Paley. “In 2016, we don’t think of libraries in quite the same way.”

    Lucia is overseeing the creation of what he hopes will be the library of the future. The building, budgeted for $170 million, is now little more than a hole in the ground across the street, but by 2017, the new library will hold the same number of books in roughly the same square footage, but do it completely differently. 

    Instead of 70 percent for shelving and the rest of the space available to people, the ratio will be flipped: about 40 percent books to 60 percent user space, including classrooms, meeting rooms, maker-spaces, and digital immersive visualization studios.

    How can you put two million books into half the space? With Bookbot.

    The books are packed inside metal bins, which are stacked inside five bays, each a matrix 55 feet high, and 150 feet long. (If you’ve seen the movie “Brazil,” you have an idea.) When a user wants a particular book, they search a database connected to a robotic crane.

    “They will click a button that says ‘Get This Item,’ which dispatches a command to the software,” said Lucia. “The robot will activate a crane to go to the bin, pull that bin, and bring to a pickup point. A member of the staff will open the bin, find the book, put it on a pickup shelf.”

    The whole process takes about a minute. There are about 40 automated retrieval systems like this online in U.S. libraries. They are a modified version of commercial warehouse technology used by fast-turnaround companies like Amazon. However, it does not organize by the Dewey Decimal System; not even the alphabet. When a book is returned to the stacks, the robot puts it wherever is most convenient for the robot.

    “It goes to the first available space that might be in closest proximity to where the crane is,” said Lucia “It’s designed for maximum efficiency of movement of materials.”

    Every inch is utilized, both within the bins and without. The Bookbot bays have no space to accommodate human beings. Nevertheless, people are attracted to it. A similar system is in place at the James Hunt Library at North Carolina State University, a library designed by the same firm working on Temple’s library, Snohetta.

    Architect Craig Dykers knows people like to watch.

    “You could just bury the technology in the building. We exposed it in the Hunt library,” said Dykers, from his San Francisco office. “There are two large windows where you can see its operation. The robot is painted a flashy yellow. It has a personality people are attracted to.”

    If you pay $6 million for five robotic cranes, you want people to watch. But despite its flash, the ultimate importance of the Bookbot to the library of the future is uncertain. Printed books are quickly giving way to digital information. After looking at data, talking to consultants, and looking into a crystal ball about how people will use books in the next hundred years, Joe Lucia says it’s all a gamble.

    “That’s the real challenge. This is where we’re making expensive guesses about the relevance of that material,” said Lucia. “This large automated retrieval system could be re-purposed space. If at some time you wanted to remove that system and remove the collection, you could in fact use the space in other ways.”

    This is an academic library, which is used differently than a public library; students tend to rely more on print material than the public. The new library will be designed with traditional shelving for 200,000 books, browsable by hand. There is a symbolic heft of standing among physically collected knowledge, two million strong.

    “Libraries should inspire people,” said Dykers. “A great building that is a part of culture should manage all the senses and inspire.”

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