New university library will use robotic cranes to fetch old books

Leading-edge technology being installed in the new library at Valparaiso University will use the robotic limbs of a computerized crane to fetch obscure books from the library’s collection. University officials say the system will save staff members time and enable them to make better use of available study space within the library, providing room for additional computers, study lounges, and even a cafe for patrons.

The university’s new Christopher Center for Library and Information Resources, opening in time for the fall semester, will house many of the library’s older and lesser-used volumes in a massive two-story, two-aisle storage facility manned by an electronic crane interfaced with the library’s online catalog. When a request for a book is made, the crane will find the correct volume in the stacks and deliver it to the circulation desk automatically.

The crane system will work four sections of bins, dropping the requested books off at a station where librarians then pull them out. The system is accessible from anywhere using the internet and will store orders when the library is closed.

The technology, manufactured by Wisconsin-based HK Systems Inc., relies on a unique software package that interacts with the electronic crane, instructing the machine what volume or volumes to seek out when an order is placed through the university’s online catalog.

That way, University Librarian Rick AmRhein, said, when a student gets to the circulation desk, “the book will already be there, waiting for them.”

Todd Hunter, an account executive for HK Systems, said the technology varies in price depending on the size and scope of the library and the number of machines needed to patrol its aisles. But a single crane system operating within a single stack generally sells in the $1 million range, he said.

Although one software program can control any number of machines, the cranes themselves are limited to a single aisle per device. That said, it makes good economic sense for libraries to build stacks as long and tall as possible, thus cutting down on the number of machines needed to canvass their collections, Hunter said.

Valparaiso officials purchased two cranes to sift through more than 300,000 titles, AmRhein said.

The university isn’t the first to install such a system. The idea actually has been around for about 20 years. In the early 1980s, Cal State Northridge installed one of the nation’s first electronic library cranes. According to AmRhein, that device received national attention after a 1998 earthquake devastated the campus, nearly demolishing every portion of the school’s library–except for the electronic crane, which remained intact, he said.

The crane is just one of the many modern features the Christopher Center for Library Information Resources will offer. The four-story, $33 million building will have plenty of computer and study space, large classrooms, a cafe, and four lounges with gas fireplaces.

AmRhein said the goal is to bring all of the university’s information technology (IT) resources–including the school’s IT help desk–under a single roof along with its vast library and information resources.

“The building is very high-tech,” said AmRhein, who anticipates the new library eventually will become a “one-stop-shop” for students’ technology and resource needs.

AmRhein said the newest volumes will remain on the shelves for librarians and students to access by hand, while volumes that typically are accessed less than three or four times a year will be housed in the storage facility equipped with the crane. When the new library is finished, officials say they expect it will contain more than 600,000 titles in all.


Valparaiso University

HK Systems Inc.

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