Thursday, April 22, 2010

NY Public Libraries Head Toward the Future

A disturbing number of people view libraries as a thing of the past. But in New York City, there is certainly nothing archaic about their libraries' new book sorting technique.

Unveiled about two months ago, a robotic librarian of sorts found its way into the library system, according to The New York Times:

A couple of years ago Salvatore Magaddino, who oversees the distribution of materials for the New York Public Library, complained at a meeting that he was having trouble recruiting book sorters, the people responsible for sorting the millions of books sent each year from one branch library to another.

“It was a mundane, boring job,” Mr. Magaddino said the other day, standing next to a result of that complaint, a gigantic new automated book sorter housed in a renovated warehouse in Long Island City, Queens. This machine — believed to be the largest of its kind — has eliminated much of the drudgery since it was turned on two months ago. Now, when a library visitor anywhere in the system requests a book located at another branch, the automated sorter does the work of routing it.

Here is how it works: On one side of the machine, which is two-thirds the length of a football field and encircled by a conveyor belt, staff members place each book face-down on a separate panel of the belt. The book passes under a laser scanner, which reads the bar code on the back cover, and the sorter communicates with the library’s central computer system to determine where the book should be headed. Then, as the conveyor belt moves along, it drops the book into one of 132 bins, each associated with a branch library. It’s sort of like a baggage carousel that knows which bag is yours and deposits it at your feet.

Read the entire article HERE
watch it in action HERE

While I don't like to see machines taking the place of humans (and stealing our jobs!), I can understand why this particular technique was conceived. I've volunteered in a library and worked in a video store for six years--sorting can be tedious and boooooring. Plus, I'm sure the machine increases production speed by the boatload, which is never a good thing unless it affects accuracy.

Still, I must admit, this conveyor belt spin-off makes me sad. Somehow a machine of this magnitude takes the charm out of it all. Libraries remind me of friendlier, more interactive times, and this is just one more thing that takes us further and further from that state of mind.

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