Books flowing into new NCSU library's robotic stacks

Automated storage, retrieval system does the work for library patrons

jprice@newsobserver.comOctober 7, 2012 

  • More information James B. Hunt Jr. Library For more information about the new library, go to When it opens in January, the library will be open to the public for much of the day, and for members of the NCSU community for longer hours, up to 24 hours a day for much of the week during the academic year. Use of the collections in the building is available, and there are borrowing privileges for members of the Friends of the Library. Anyone can use the online card catalog and browsing features now.

— The heart of the structure that will be the centerpiece of N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus is beating now.

Or rather, it’s humming and whirring.

That’s because it’s a hive of robots.

NCSU calls it the bookBot, an automated storage and retrieval system in the new James B. Hunt Jr. Library that will allow students to find and pull books off the shelves without the assistance of human hands – not even theirs. People can’t go into the stacks, but there’s a viewing area where they can watch how it works.

The gee-whiz factor is obvious, but the bookBot has straightforward benefits, including savings in library construction and operating costs, savings in time for patrons who no longer have to hunt through the stacks, and accuracy.

“A book can’t be missing from the shelf,” said David Goldsmith, associate director for materials management for the university’s libraries. “If the system tells someone a book is available, we can get it, and get it to them, 100 percent of the time.”

As of last week, 1 million of a planned 1.5 million books that eventually will be housed in the Hunt library have been “ingested” by the robotic stacks. Since mid-July, a fleet of about 80 moving-company trucks has fed a stream of books to a small army of part-time student workers inside.

They’re adding books at a clip of more than 20,000 a day, so the loading should be finished this month, Goldsmith said. The books mainly will be those associated with the College of Textiles, the College of Engineering and other scientific disciplines concentrated on Centennial Campus. The library is expected to open Jan. 2.

The students helping load the system scan electronic tags on the books into the computer that controls the bookBot system and place the books in 4-foot-long metal bins. Four robot “cranes” – each prowling its own 50-foot-deep, 120-foot-long canyon between the shelves – place the bins in a location precisely mapped by the computer to within a fraction of a millimeter.

At heart, Goldsmith said, the bookBot is a modified version of high-tech warehouse technology used by the likes of FedEx and Nike.

On Friday morning, Deion Oakes, a 21-year-old environmental technology major from Winston-Salem, was standing at one of the bookBot work stations deep in the bowels of the library packing books into one of the 18,172 bins so one of the cranes could spirit it away, into gleaming silver walls shelving.

“When I first saw this, it was like oh my gosh, because I was not expecting this at all,” Oakes said. “I had never seen anything like it and it was a little overwhelming at first, but it’s actually pretty simple to use.”

Each of the four robots has two work stations where its human co-workers can pull books from the bins and put others back in for reshelving.

It takes no more than 60 seconds for one of the robots to retrieve a bin from anywhere in the system, and after the library opens, the goal will be to have a book pulled and placed at one of the designated pickup areas within five minutes, Goldsmith said.

Labor reductions

The system is expected to sharply reduce the labor required to handle books, particularly since shelving won’t require humans, he said.

It will also reduce, perhaps, incalculable man-hours for students and faculty to physically enter the shelves and retrieve books. Faculty members will have the option of ordering a book online and having it sent to their office via the campus mail system.

The stacks take up about one-ninth as much space as that many books would require on traditional shelves, and they make it possible to reduce some construction costs and boost the number of seats available in the building. NCSU’s rapid growth in recent years has seen it fall behind the UNC system goal of having each institution’s libraries accommodate more than 20 percent of its students. With Hunt, NCSU’s libraries will be able to seat about 11 percent, up from fewer than 5 percent now.

The computer guiding the robots knows precisely where each book is located, and doesn’t need to use the Library of Congress call number to track them.

That means the books aren’t filed in any order at all, but instead are simply grouped by height. The bins come in various heights to get the maximum efficiency out of the shelf space.

Browsing’s still possible

For those who enjoy the serendipity for finding new books or authors, browsing is still possible. A given book and the volumes that would normally sit on the shelf with it under a traditional filing system can still be seen together on a computer-generated “virtual shelf.” This is now accessible online to anyone, and eventually will become more elaborate.

Virtual browsing also means the library’s hundreds of thousands of electronic books – a rapidly-growing part of the collection – can be browsed as if they were sitting on the shelves beside the real books on similar topics.

The virtual shelves also can include volumes from UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke, as the universities have a robust book-sharing arrangement, Goldsmith said.

Another reduction in labor will come from not needing as many people to check out books. That can now be done by patrons themselves by using simple readers for the radio frequency tags on each book and their university ID card.

The bookBot is already being used, because school is in and the faculty and staff could scarcely do without 1.5 million books. Books can be ordered online or at one of the university’s other libraries. The students loading the bins also are pulling requests, which can be picked up at another library.

The robots are hardly the only technological marvel in the building that aims to help redefine what it means to be a university library in the digital age, with books waning in importance.

There are about 100 rooms for group study and collaborative projects. Some feature startling technology, such as walls of video displays that can immerse students in 270-degree 3D digital environments, or the kind of sophisticated gaming that’s becoming ever more important for training, say, troops or doctors.

One room is equipped to let Navy ROTC students crew a virtual battleship bridge, where they will control and navigate the ship as a wall-sized image of the scene they would be seeing in front of a real ship plays off the “bow.”

For the nostalgic, there still will be some traditional bookshelves to roam, but not many.

Only perhaps 40,000 volumes – recent publications in engineering and textiles – will be housed in traditional shelving where humans will still be able to retrieve their own books.

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