Library robots

blue robot

blue robotLibraries have always been at the forefront of adopting new technology, but their innovations usually have something to do with organizing and retrieving information. The online library catalog is a good example. Now some libraries are borrowing technology from manufacturing: robots that shelve and retrieve physical books.

It may come as a surprise to some people that printed books are still such a big deal to academic libraries. After all, much of formerly huge reference collections has been replaced by online databases. Long runs of many important journals and other periodicals are likewise available as full text online. Ebooks have lately begun to surpass printed books in sales.

Nonetheless, vast amounts of important information have never been digitized. It is accessible only in print form. While more and more library patrons use electronic information sources in preference to print, print cannot go away any time soon.

Problems with print collections

When I was a freshman in college, the university library had a closed stack policy. (This was in prehistoric times when there were not yet computers in libraries.) Students had to select materials from the card catalog, fill out a call slip, and wait (and wait, and wait) for someone on the library staff to retrieve the books. Sophomore year—oh joy!—the university opened a new library building with open stacks.

Missing items

Open stacks meant, of course, that anyone could go there and take books down. Patrons could check them out or sit in a nearby chair to read them. In that case, they either left them laying around or put them back on the shelf. It requires some training to reshelve books correctly, so more often than not, patrons misfiled them. One problem, therefore, is that as patrons trekked from the card catalog to the stacks (either in a vast underground space or a nine-story tower) they never knew if they would actually find what they were looking for.

Online library catalogs eventually solved part of that problem. When someone checked out a book, the catalog showed that it was in circulation and gave the date when it would be back in the library. That still did not solve the problem of misshelved books or books laying around on tables somewhere.


Even medium sized academic libraries own more than a million books and bound journals. They must be in some predictable order so that patrons and library staff can find any one of them in particular.

Bound periodicals may be shelved by title, but most materials are shelved according to the classification system used by the library (Dewey Decimal Classification, Library of Congress Classification, National Library of Medicine Classification, etc.). Shelving by classification puts short books and tall books close together, so there might be several inches of empty space between the top of one book and the bottom of the shelf above it.

Book stacks are usually no more than about six feet tall even though ceilings are much higher. The aisle between the stacks must be wide enough for two people to pass. Some libraries have adopted compact shelving for some of their less used materials. They save space by eliminating most of the aisle space.

Many libraries save shelf space in their main buildings by using off-site storage for infrequently used items. Typically someone on the library staff makes one or two trips there per day on a regular schedule. Patrons can still get access to these materials, but they have to wait several hours or even until the next day.

Preservation issues

Most patrons probably don’t give the physical safety of the books much thought, but some shelving designs make it awfully easy to inflict great harm on a book simply by putting it on the shelf. For example, some shelves have a thin metal divider that keeps books standing upright when several of them have been removed. Whoever puts the books back must be careful. Otherwise, the inside of the book can be pushed up against the divider, bending or tearing several pages.

Also, books thrive in an environment of controlled temperature and humidity. About 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 30% relative humidity is ideal. Humans are not comfortable in those conditions.

Robotic retrieval of reading material

library robot

Robot book fetcher at the University of Utah

California State University at Northridge installed an Automatic Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) in 1991. Since then, a couple of dozen academic libraries have followed suit, either because of the opportunity to build new library buildings or to perform radical renovations to existing buildings.

Basically, robots take over all responsibility for retrieving books and returning them to their place. That means both that the system need not be designed with human limitations in mind and that the stacks are unsafe for humans.

Instead of six feet tall, stacks can be any size. At the Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, they are 50 feet tall and underground. Each stack runs the entire length of the building in temperature and humidity conditions that are optimal for book preservation. The Mansueto Library will ultimately house the university’s entire print collection.

An ASRS can house an entire library collection using about a seventh the space of conventional library shelving, space the library can use for any number of places for people to gather. It is very expensive to build and maintain, of course, but as it turns out, only about half the cost of compact shelving!

Robots do not read call numbers, so the books can be arranged by size. Actually, the robots do not retrieve individual books, but bins that hold about 100 books each. Each robotic crane can swiftly move both horizontally and vertically at the same time to find the appropriate bin.

Here is how the system works:

  1. A patron looks for the desired item in the online library catalog. Assuming that it is not already checked out to someone else, only a few clicks are necessary to call for the item
  2. The catalog communicates the request to the ASRS, directing it to retrieve the bin where the item is located.
  3. The ASRS gets the bin and delivers it to a waiting librarian within a couple of minutes.
  4. The library staffer’s computer screen tells exactly where in the bin the item is located and shows its barcode number.
  5. The staff person scans the barcode and takes the item to the nearby circulation desk, where the patron picks it up.
  6. When the item is returned to the circulation desk, a staffer scans the barcode again, which causes the ASRS to return the bin so the item can be replaced.

This process occurs hundreds of times every day. It completely solves the problem of missing books. It doesn’t matter whether the patron removes the item from the library for a couple of weeks or uses it in the library. Either it is in the bin or it is not, and the catalog reflects the current reality at any given moment.

It saves lots of staff time. It is no longer necessary to shelve books manually. Neither is the time-consuming and extremely tedious task of shelf-reading to find misshelved titles.

So far, it seems like the old closed stack libraries without the horrendous waits. What about the serendipity that comes from browsing the shelves? With a virtual bookshelf on the computer, it can be almost as good as physical browsing.

The virtual bookshelf shows books in call-number order. And it shows not only the physical books, but also the growing number of ebooks libraries own. It is even possible for the virtual bookshelf to display books held by other libraries that have book-sharing arrangements.

You no longer look inside a book on the shelf to see if it’s useful, but you can have it from the bin within five minutes. Not only that, but for most installations of ASRSs, you can go over and watch the robots in action. Cool!

Robot Visions (Library Journal)
How It Works: Underground Robot Library (Popular Science)
Miller Nichols Library and Learning Center Expansion and Renovation: About the Robot (University of Missouri at Kansas City)
Books Flowing into New NCSU Library’s Robotic Stacks (North Carolina State University)

Image credits:
Blue robot. Some rights reserved by Nemo.
Robot book fetcher. Some rights reserved by skyfallery.

Assorted bookworms

Bookworm (reader)When I googled “bookworm,” almost the entire first page of hits concerned an online word game. The lone exception was for a long-running radio program about books. I suppose a fair amount of book clubs, book stores, book review newspaper columns, etc. have the name bookworm or bookworms. I even came across Bookworm Socks!

And why not? Bookworm is a long establish idiom for someone who spends a lot of time reading or studying. I take it the term is not entirely complimentary, as in this illustration: ” The girl who would rather stay inside and read than go out and play is an example of a bookworm.”

I could easily open a can of different worms by wondering, “why girl?” Oh well. It could be even worse. The example could have been a girl who would rather stay inside and read than go out on a date.

Bookish boys don’t come out any better. “Bookworm” may be an early way of saying “nerd.” (Although, as Bill Gates famously said, be nice to them, ’cause one of them will probably be your boss.)

Bookworm damage

Bookworm damage

An even older usage is more literal: insect larvae that eat books. As it turns out, some of them maintain their enjoyment of books as adults. There is no one species of bug known as a bookworm. In fact, there are numerous culprits that eat through page after page, leaving small (or if left unchecked, large) holes.

The first librarian I ever worked for, who taught me a lot about book preservation, was quite paranoid about food in the library. The staff were allowed to have snacks or even lunch at our desks, but we had to make sure that no crumb remained there. Crumbs attract roaches, and when they finish that meal, what they like best is the paste that keeps books together.

Imagine my shock and surprise, when I started to library school, that the library closed one night a year to host a banquet. That’s right. In the library.

Since then, patrons have demanded relaxation of many traditional library rules. More and more libraries allow them to consume at least some food or drinks in the library. I hope the two legged bookworms and those who clean up after them are careful with their food so as not to give too much encouragement to the less iterate variety!

Here’s a nineteenth-century poem too much fun not to share:

The Bookworm

THERE is a sort of busy worm

That will the fairest books deform,

By gnawing holes throughout them;

Alike, through every leaf they go,

Yet of its merits naught they know,

Nor care they aught about them.

Their tasteless tooth will tear and taint

The Poet, Patriot, Sage or Saint,

Not sparing wit nor learning.

Now, if you’d know the reason why,

The best of reasons I’ll supply;

‘Tis bread to the poor vermin.

Of pepper, snuff, or ‘bacca smoke,

And Russia-calf they make a joke.

Yet, why should sons of science

These puny rankling reptiles dread?

‘Tis but to let their books be read,

And bid the worms defiance.

J. Doraston

[ad name=”Google Adsense 728×90″]
Photo credits:
Bookworm damage. Some rights reserved by janetmck.
Others, source unknown

Two pees in a pot: students’ misused pears

misused pears

Mismatched pear of shoes?

The Internet is full of bad writing by people who ought to take more pride in their work. In this series of posts, I have enjoyed publishing the results of careless writers who choose the wrong word from a set of homonyms.

Now I find that teachers also enjoy posting excerpts from their students’ tests and papers. Some of those kids have a lot more serious problems than simply choosing the right word! Here are a few beauties:

  • We were as close as two pees in a pot.
  • He urines to be accepted.
  • Steinbeck always wrote with a porpoise.
  • Sex is contact between male and female gentiles.
  • Non governmental organizations are not for prophet.
  • The main problem with global warming is, that many orgasms will go extinct.
  • Society is a living orgasm.
  • Before Europeans even entered the Americas, Native Americans had established a way to life shadowing those of pheasants in Europe.
  • Miss Minnie Cooper used to be an attractive old woman but she has become an old sphincter.
  • This source was actually used by someone doing their doctoral destitution.
  • I would also like to add that the term illiterate is mean and hateful. People cannot help that they don’t have a father!
  • [And I would like to add that the student teacher in my 9th-grade health told us about an article he had read in the previous day’s paper about sterilizing the parents of illiterate children so they wouldn’t have any more! It’s sad to think that barely literate people can get teaching jobs, but alas he was not much worse than my English(!) teacher that same year.]
  • Gynecologists treat conditions of the cul de sac.
  • I’m quoting from the ancient Greek philosopher Aeropostale.
  • I am not going to be in class today I have slipped a dick in my back and it is very painful. I can hardly get out of bed.
  • The booty of Helen of Troy was legendary.
  • Norman is an island. That is so true. That is what the bells told.

[ad name=”Google Adsense 728×90″]
Some rights reserved by gadl.
You should follow me on twitter here.

Presenting library book cart drill teams (!?!)

Library book cart drill team

Library book cart drill team

Library Book Cart Drill Team in the Westhampton Beach (New York) St. Patrick’s Day Parade

A couple of months ago I posted some videos of librarians doing parodies of popular songs. In the process of looking for them, I found some that featured library book cart drill teams.

That’s right. Beginning in 2004, the American Library Association and DEMCO, one of the major library vendors, have sponsored a Book Cart Drill Team competition. Teams of librarians choreograph routines that involve pushing or pulling library book carts to music. The idea has caught on! Enjoy.

The Cart Wheels (Des Plaines Public Library) rehearse for the 2007 Fourth of July parade in Des Plaines, Illinois.

2011 California School Library Association and DEMCO Book Cart Drill Team Competition, won by the Black Swan Book Cart Drill Team from San Bernardino (with no apologies to Tchaikowski’s Swan Lake!)

[ad name=”Google Adsense 728×90″]
A team from the Daniel Boone Regional Library took second place at the 2007 Missouri Library Association conference. They called themselves the Dewey Decimators–surely first place among all drill team names anywhere!

And the 2010 winners of the competition that started it all, the American Library Association itself. Enjoy “The Night of the Living Librarians.”

[ad name=”Google Adsense 728×90″]
Photo source: Some rights reserved by Joe Shlabotnik.

Research for ordinary people

Scientific research

Scientific researchScientists in their labs or historians poring over manuscript collections and archives are researchers.

Many of them become well known in their profession, and maybe even with the general public.

People who search the web for sites that they then pass on to a writer are also researchers, very likely making $2 an hour somewhere in Asia.

They are at the low end of status and responsibility for Internet work. What does either kind of research have to do with most people?

Everyone does research. Not everyone does it professionally. For most people, that research is not likely to result in a book, journal article, or interview on a TV talk show. For most people, on the other hand, research is not merely someone else’s grunt work.

So what is research for ordinary people, and how do they go about it? The range of answers is every bit as wide as it is for people who get paid for doing research.

Research means gathering information about some subject of interest, analyzing it, and eventually doing something about it.

Consider the person compiling a family history, a genealogy. It’s a hobby for most people, but one that requires many of the same skills and resources as a professional historian. They comb census records. It’s about as tedious as it sounds, but that’s the easy part.

Once they find where an ancestor lived and when they lived there, many genealogists want to visit the place. Perhaps there are local records that will flesh out the ancestor’s life, making him or her more substantial than a name with dates on a chart. Perhaps they’ll find a gravestone, or perhaps a house or business is still standing.

On the other hand, consider someone who has lots of cabbage and is tired of coleslaw. Looking for cabbage recipes, either in a cookbook or online, is the lower end of research, but it results in a meal that uses the cabbage in a tasty new dish.

Somewhere between those two examples, a student writing a paper for class must also perform research. Nearly all of us have graduated from high school, where we wrote papers. Almost as many of us went to college where we wrote more papers, whether we graduated or not. Does that mean that everyone knows how to do research? No.

How to do research badly

I remember very well a young man, a high school graduate, wanting to buy his first car. He didn’t know where to start. The World Wide Web was just getting started, and Internet connections were not nearly as common as they have become. I suggested that he could find the information he needed by asking at the library. He sort of froze.

So we got in my car and went into the local public library. He followed me to the reference desk. I asked the reference librarian for resources about buying used cars. Having heard the same question very frequently, she reached over and grabbed four books from ready reference and handed them to me. I gave them to him and showed him the copier.

After a while, he had copies of pages that interested him and gave to books back to me. I returned them to the reference desk. As we left the library, he said, “Thanks, man. I never could have done that without you.” His mother, by the way, was a teacher who had at one time run the media center in her school.

So much for the notion that people learn how to do research (or for that matter, much of anything else in particular) in high school. College, alas, isn’t much more successful.

A reference librarian told this story on a librarians’ email list. A student sitting very close to the reference desk asked friends for help finding things as they walked by. After a while, he started phoning other friends elsewhere in the library to come and help him. Meanwhile, whenever the reference librarian or anyone else on the staff offered to help, he always turned them away.

In another library, a reference librarian noted that she had talked to both a first year masters student and a doctoral student in the writing phase of preparing a dissertation. Neither one of them knew that they could look up books in the online catalog or articles in any of the databases. They had been to the library for orientation, but not since.

It’s easy to do research badly.

  • Pay no attention to anyone who wants to demonstrate how to do it well.
  • Remain totally oblivious to anything that won’t be on a multiple-choice exam.
  • Consider anything not narrowly connected to the subject matter at hand to be irrelevant.
  • Don’t ask questions of the people most likely to know the answers.
  • Refuse help when someone offers.

How to do research well

Research using a laptop

Research using a laptop

Research begins with a question, a gap in knowledge.

  • How many generations back can I trace my ancestry?
  • How do I identify the best and most suitable car for my budget?
  • What can I do with this cabbage before it spoils and I have to throw it out?


Your first question will probably bring up a number of other questions.

  • What do I need to know to answer the question? And what do I not need to know? A flood of information exists. The researcher must therefore have a tightly focused question to avoid being buried in possibly interesting facts and ideas that do not lead to the answer.
  • Where is the best place to look for the information I need?
  • How will I recognize sources that have the right kind of information when I come across them?
  • How do I know if the information I find is reliable?
  • How do I know when I have found enough information, at least for now?
  • Can I find a simple answer to my question, or will I have to put together an answer from partial answers I find in multiple sources?

Most people nowadays probably begin their search for information with a browser. A young man buying a car today might not think to go to the library any more than my friend did many years ago. But today, a reference librarian would probably show him web sites instead of printed books. He would probably turn up the same sites himself if he put the right terms in the search box.

The right terms. That’s where searching the Internet gets tricky. A search engine is likely to turn up hundreds of thousands or even a million pages for a query. If the results on the first page don’t look like they have anything to do with the question, you haven’t found the right terms.

On the other hand, the results on the first page may not be the most useful results for your question. They got to the top of the results because someone at that website knew techniques of what’s called search engine optimization. Perhaps an article on the tenth page of results, written by someone who didn’t know how to get his page to rank higher, will be more useful for you.

If your question is at all technical, the best information might not be free on the Internet at all. It might be contained in a scholarly article accessible only through a database that requires an expensive subscription. Only libraries can afford to pay the subscription costs, and they can only afford it because they have many people who will use it.

On the other hand, some really good information might not even be online at all. It might be available only in print. Less and less recent information is unavailable online, but particularly in the arts and humanities, there are many subjects that you simply can’t study without touching paper.

So besides the questions posed above, there is one more every researcher needs to keep in mind: Can I find what I need by myself or do I need help?

From clarifying the research question itself to evaluating the quality of information, help is always available at the library. And I don’t mean sitting six feet from the reference desk and phoning a friend!

Photo credits:
Scientific research. Some rights reserved by IRRI Images.
Research using a laptop. Some rights reserved by Nicola since 1972.