Santa Clara University library assisted by giant robots

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For BYU students accustomed to the Harold B. Lee Library, Santa Clara University’s library might seem a little confusing.

Photo by Carolyn Carter. Most of the books at the Santa Clara University library are stored in their “Automated Retrieval System,” operated by a large robot.

At first glance there doesn’t appear to be very many books at all — just lots of open spaces with tables, chairs and couches.
So where did all the books go?

The books are still there. They’re just a little more hidden than one might expect.

Three quarters of SCU’s books are stored in their “Automated Retrieval System,” a robot-assisted storage vault located in a corner of the library. In the area, about 800,000 library items are stored in rows of metal bins two stories tall. Students can look up books on the library’s website, select the one they need and machines in the ARS retrieve it. Start to finish, the process takes less than five minutes.

The ARS is a unique solution to some logistical problems the university faced when it completely rebuilt the library in 2003. To store most of its books on standard open shelving, while still having growth capacity and open areas for students, would call for a library much too large and expensive for its space and budget.

University Librarian Elizabeth Salzer took part in the new library’s design. She said the university’s logistical constraints made it investigate ways to “value engineer,” — to cut back on the money and space — while still providing a desirable atmosphere for SCU students. This led the university to investigate automated retrieval systems at other libraries, which at the time were few.

Ron Danielson, SCU’s vice provost for chief information services, oversaw much of the library redesign. He said the idea of placing the majority of library materials in ARS storage rubbed some faculty the wrong way. One faculty member published a three-page article in the Chronicle for Higher Education claiming the ARS marked the death of scholarship at SCU.

Danielson said the library has tried to make the ARS more of a convenience than an inconvenience. The library website has “virtual booklists” for books in the ARS. He said the information in the virtual booklists is still fairly limited — usually just the title and whatever cataloguing information the librarians have put in — but he expects this to improve over time.

“As we move forward with these technologies, I fully expect you’ll have an experience that’s more like Amazon,” Danielson said. “You’re going to have book covers, tables of contents. You might have an index, you might have some sample pages, and you’ll be much better able to decide whether a book that’s in the ARS is something that would be valuable to you. And that’s just a matter of higher education technology catching up with the consumer space.”

Danielson emphasized the ARS is simply one aspect of the university faculty’s larger effort to change the library from a simple storage space to one that better serves students’ needs.

“The concept of the library in higher education is changing dramatically over time,” Danielson said. “It’s not just a repository for books, it’s a place where people can come to interact around ideas. It’s a new paradigm about what a library should be, and how it should serve the needs of the campus community.”

The automated library system approach has gained popularity since SCU implemented its. According to automatedlibrarysystems.com, there are now almost 20 similar retrieval systems in university libraries across the country. Danielson said despite some initial skepticism, the library is now a huge success.

“Students stay in the building longer than they stayed in the old library,” Danielson said. “It’s become sort of a place to go when you’re not in class. And [that’s] very gratifying to those of us who were on the design team.”