Robotic Retrieval and Library Browsing

I’m confused about how the whole robot retrieval system will work at the new library. Will patrons be unable to stroll the shelves and browse through books?

When the new Temple University Library opens in 2018 it will contain print books. Lots of books. The number of books will be about equivalent to what is currently contained in the Paley Library. The majority of the books will be stored in a robotic retrieval system. The quick answer to your question is yes. There will be books on shelves. Patrons will be able to stroll and browse in what will be a smaller physical collection of books than now found in Paley Library.

The new library will have a robotic storage and retrieval system that is referred to as an Automated and Storage Retrieval System (ASRS). Some of your confusion can be eliminated by familiarizing yourself with the ASRS, which you can do by watching this video or possibly this one. Either one will give you a better sense of what the ASRS does. It is almost becoming the norm for any new academic library building to take advantage of ASRS technology. This is because an ASRS allows for high-density storage so that the per volume cost of storing a book is as much as one-fourth of the cost of stack storage. Even the new library and learning commons being built at the much smaller Marywood University includes an ASRS.

Why are 21st-century library buildings incorporating the ASRS? It is a matter of efficient space utilization – and thinking ahead about how people will use research libraries 20, 30, 50 years and beyond into the future. Instead of having 29 miles of shelving and two entire floors devoted to book stacks as the current Paley Library does, the new Temple University Library will feature only one floor dedicated to open book stacks. That means a far greater amount of floor space may be devoted to to an environment where students, faculty and librarians can engage with each other for learning and research.

The new building will feature great resources such as the new Center for Learning and Student Success, a faculty suite for digital research and visualization lab, over 40 hi-tech study rooms for students, four instruction rooms, student-librarian consultation rooms, an innovation center, a dedicated reading/quiet room, a one-stop service zone, much improved spaces for events, a 24/7 cafe, an expanded Special Collections and Research Center and much improved display space. The only way to achieve all these enhancements is to shift floor space currently dedicated to book stacks to new people space.

While the number of books on stacks will be less than what Paley now offers, some 200,000 titles will still be available in open stacks for browsing. We are currently performing a collection analysis to identify the sections of our collection that are most sought after for browsing, such as the arts, architecture, music, literature and others. Disciplines such as business and technology, where books are less sought after, are primary candidates for the ASRS.

At Temple University Libraries we understand the value of book browsing for the exploration and discovery of new knowledge. As much as possible we will seek to continue the tradition of serendipitous discovery in our collections. Over the next two years we will also be exploring new technology, already being tested at other libraries, that offer a much improved library catalog search experience that brings the feel and power of book browsing to the computer screen. Our technology team will be working to develop an integrated shelf browsing app that will bring together all our holdings in single virtual shelf environment. As the new library project evolves we will be sharing more information about the building with the Temple University community. Look for more to come in 2016.

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5 thoughts on “Robotic Retrieval and Library Browsing

  1. As a recent Temple alumnus (2015), I have to say that I am very skeptical of the planned changes.

    I spent a great deal of time in the Paley stacks during my four years and I would estimate that only about 1/4 of the books I took out of Paley were ones that I intentionally sought. The rest were ones that I found by chance, browsing the shelves.

    Now, the article says that a certain number of books will be kept in open stacks for just that reason, which is encouraging. What worries me, however, is that they decision to either place books in open stacks or to relegate them to the robotic shelving seems to be based upon a given book’s popularity. This is a problem because the whole structure of our university system encourages students to push their academic efforts into ever-more specialized subjects. I can attest that the topic of my senior thesis was extremely specialized and required me to consult books that probably haven’t been checked out in 20 or more years. The whole idea of a liberal education, however, is that it doesn’t matter if a student picks a popular topic or an obscure one, they all ought to receive the necessary resources to learn what they want to learn. In my case, the fact that Paley kept 100-year-old books on French literature on the shelves for me to discover was essential in completing my thesis, and that aid has allowed me to go on and continue my academic career at a graduate level.

    I realize that the obvious response to my concern is to say, “The books will still be accessible to any student, they’ll just require retrieval.” Yet I think that research via robotic request is a very different thing than traditional library browsing. Human beings need the opportunity to walk through books and see, at a glance, whole categories of books. We need to be able to rapidly open a book, flip through it, and then either hold onto it or move on to the next. You can’t achieve the necessary research speed if you have to place a new request to the robot every time you want to assess whether a book is worth reading or not. Worse, the hassle of entering a request into a robot and then waiting for it to arrive might discourage students from ordering books they aren’t sure they need. Using technology is a very different thing than walking to a bookshelf, and is much more likely to inspire impatience. That will be even more true if there’s a mechanical failure while a student is at the library (especially if that student is trying to meet a deadline).

    A final point is that research is about more than reading the books that you know you need. It’s about discovering WHICH books you need, even if you were previously unaware of their existence. When you assume that a student can enter a book’s name into the system, you’re assuming that they know what they’re trying to find. In my experience, when I know I need a book, it’s usually at the end of my research process, not the beginning.

    I graduated in 2015. I am not an old alumnus, set in my ways. I can promise you that open stacks were essential to the way I learned at Temple. Nor do the proposed benefits of the change appeal much to me: I always found plenty of space to study at Temple, I always had access to a computer, I always could get a cup of coffee. Therefore, the idea that stacks should be compressed in order to make room for study space, computers, and a cafe is bizarre to me. Temple has already done well in those regards. Temple does not, I think, need more areas that will be turned to socialization: it needs, rather, to preserve the spaces set aside for traditional learning. Such spaces are at the heart of what make universities so unique and so indispensable in our world.

  2. Some of the library chiefs need to get their heads straight about the function of a library. Libraries hold books for people to use for reading and research. They are not social hangouts or coffee shops. You hide the books you lose the scholars and you invite the dopes who want to have a place to socialize with friends. Access is everything. Stop pretending that a robot can do for real scholars what a scholar can do himself or herself when perusing a stack of books. It’s a crying shame that the admin is hiding behind money as an excuse for completely destroying the potential for rich intellectual discovery while at the same time the U is discussing a $100 million stadium.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I don’t know if you’ve visited our library recently – or another academic library- but if you did I think you’d find that library is about much more than “books for people”. Today’s students really appreciate having study space, study rooms, a cafe (which our new building will have and it will be a 24/7 space – which our students really want) and more.

      The 21st century library is about much more than being a passive container of content where you come and find a book. Today’s students are content creators – as are our faculty. Stop by our Digital Scholarship Center – where there are no books – but lots of students and faculty creating new forms of digital scholarship.

      Spend some time in the book stacks. Then let us know how many real scholars are perusing the shelves – especially in the areas such as business, science and technology. Most of them are using our vast electronic resources to do research from their desktops.

      Spending some time in a research library and observing behaviors and patterns may give you a different perspective on what the function of a contemporary research library is.

      • I think that Josh’s point is well made. Temple has plenty of “study space” and is absolutely overrun with cafes. I wonder if any actual students were consulted about their wants, because I (as a recent alumnus) have never once expressed a desire for any of the things you listed. Furthermore, I have had the good fortune of going into several research libraries over the past year, and I think that you could profit from visiting them. Cambridge University’s Library, to give one example, has stacks that are absolutely overcrowded with people, all trying to get books to bring to the reading room. While Temple may not have the resources of a Cambridge, it should ask itself why the world’s most productive research libraries all retain the traditional brick and mortar stacks.

        • I definitely understand concerns about the loss of serendipitous discovery in library stacks.

          We have visited other libraries and we went through an extensive service design process with Brightspot Strategies. We invited many community members, including faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, etc. to identify their needs and share their needs for a new library. Having visited libraries with ASRS technology and reduced stacks, we are seeing good results with searchable systems that provide virtual browsing technology.

          I can’t say how accurate a comparison is with Cambridge U, but here is a recent survey of students about their needs from a campus library. Please take a close look at the chart in this article. It is an indicator of how future students view the need for having books and stacks on site in the library. (you may need to copy this URL into your browse if the hyperlink doesn’t work )

          If this is an accurate predication for the future, and having books on site is among the least important needs for tomorrow’s students, then Temple Libraries will have a good decision for its library of the future. I suspect you will remain unconvinced by this study, but I do encourage you to keep the new library in mind and visit when it is in operation in 2018. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you see and find going on.

          Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

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