• University of Chicago Library: something lost with innovation?

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    I've been a library hound for most of my life, but never more than I was as a graduate student at Yale University from 1979 to 1983. Yale has some of the most incredible libraries on the planet, especially the Beinecke rare book library. Graduate students are entitled to their own study carol at the main library, installed in an old Gothic style church on campus with ceilings so low that there were "sub-floors" (two floors instead of the traditional one floor) of books. Even when I wasn't doing research, I'd roam the floors just looking for interesting book designs or titles I've never heard of before. In fact, every year while I was attending the University, a student would discover a rare book that had been donated, but not cataloged yet.

    Unfortunately all of that is going to change if the University of Chicago's new Mansueto Library becomes the model for future library architecture. The student/researcher's interaction with books will be narrowed and the serendipity of finding books by accident will be a thing of the past.

    From a Chicago Tribune article on cityscapes by Blair Kamin, the University needed to solve the problem of keeping their entire book collection on-campus while at the same time providing an appealing and practical atmosphere for students to study and research. Architect Helmet Jahn's startling sci-fi design is based on the idea that book storage is separate from the student research area. As you can see in the picture above, the giant "bubble" is where the students study and the large blocky building to the right is where the books are stored and then delivered by a fully automated system to the waiting students next door.

    Here is a description of how it works from the Tribune article:

    "Patrons can request materials at a computer terminal in the library or via the Internet. It works like this: You request the book, then a high-speed robotic crane zooms down a tiny railroad track and stops at the right bin. It pulls out the bin, and delivers it upstairs to the circulation desk, where a real person picks out your book. The process, which has been used for industrial storage, Internet retailers, and smaller academic libraries, is supposed to take 5 minutes — as opposed to at least a day for getting materials from a remote storage facility."

    The advantages are obvious: ideal conditions to store books (temperature, handling, power saving, space saving, protection) and a wonderful, open space with lots of natural light for students to work in. And although they've encountered minor problems (students climbing to the top of the big bubble for one), the response by students has been very positive. The bright, open space with pleasing Scandanavian-style furniture looks like a wonderful place to study and to think (the 360 degree view must be wonderful).

    Still, I can't help but wonder if something has been lost by separating the books from the students. Oh, I don't mean that students don't have the actual books to handle and use, it's the serendipity I was talking about earlier: the ability to 'browse' the library is effectively gone with this design. Students order the exact book they want and it's retrieved by a robot: no accidents, no finding a book mis-filed and it turns out to be a great book you would have otherwise never seen.

    I suppose the advantages outweigh the loss of "browsing", as the books are kept in great shape and will last a lot longer (I don't think that rare book libraries will be adopting this method though), but I hope this new design doesn't become the norm. I'd like to think there is still some student wandering the aisles looking for something interesting to read or finding a book they would never have found if robots were looking instead. It's such a remarkable feeling to be amidst thousands of books in the stacks; that feeling of history and the expectation of learning while looking down row upon row of books. That experience won't be a part of the new system and I think it's a loss.