Monday, May 12, 2008

The Library of the Future

My alma mater claims to be building the library of the future.

I have many fond memories of the Reg, and I do love the idea of all onsite storage, but some details of the plan worry me.

For instance:
Housed within the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library will be a state-of-the-art conservation and preservation facility, a special collections service area, a grand reading room and the capacity for 3.5 million volumes of print material, which will be contained in a high-density, automated shelving system.

The system, which requires one-seventh of the space of regular stacks, will serve materials for use in real time. When a request is made for material stored in the system, it will be retrieved within minutes by a crane — unlike off-site storage facilities, where it may take days to receive requested material.

Yeah, you read that right: a CRANE.

And that worries me. Can a crane be as soft and gentle with a book as it should be? And can a crane read titles and call numbers?

Say what you want about offsite facilities -- at least they have people staffing it. What's the likelihood that a crane will actually pull the book you need? I can't count how many times I've found books on Poe and Twain among the Beowulf editions because somebody misshelved PS books as PR. Everyone knows that actually finding a book in a library involves a little shelf-scanning. And I don't believe for a minute that the crane will ensure perfect shelving; machines are easily confused.

I also thought that part of the point of keeping books onsite was to enable browsing. I don't really see how ultra-compact shelving will even allow, much less promote, browsing.

I really do hope this works out, especially since I find the idea of the library of the future! awesome. I just hope it involves actually getting the books you need.

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