Monday, May 16, 2011

The Library as Vending Machine

There is something mysterious and exciting about walking down a dark narrow library aisle - the stacks closing in over top of you, the dusty smell of aging paper, and the possibility of stumbling upon a book you never even knew existed. This is the experience of silently wandering through countless libraries all over the world. Unfortunately, this experience is also at odds with the fast-paced immediate retrieval experience that is the digital age we find ourselves in currently. Starting your search may be as easy as typing in the broadest definition of the topic, and result in countless digital paths of inquiry - akin to browsing through dusty stacks as organized by Dewey. However, if you know exactly what you are looking for, the ability to narrow down feedback results can be as precise as you can type. Results can be almost immediate - and all from the comfort of your home computer or mobile device. This is the wonder and detachment of the internet and digital information.

The new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago has bridged the gap between physical records and digital accessibility with it's "Automated Storage and Retrieval System" that "takes inspiration from commercial inventory techniques". The books and manuscripts are stored in special preservation-condition bins and bar-coded so that the system knows exactly where to send it's robotic retrieval arms for delivery. The user short-circuits the traditional method of library searching, and instead, is greeted by the worlds largest vending machine. Instead of Honeybuns and Cheetos's, pressing B5 will bring you Shakespeare and Darwin.

The technology is indeed highly sophisticated and brings a new level of organization and ease to a process once fraught with uncertainty and confusion. The search for information has become more direct and efficient, however, gone are the days of exploration and tangential discoveries that often lead to new avenues of research. The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library uses an online catalog that allows users to digitally "search" the library holdings. It would be interesting to know if a certain amount of "randomness" could be built into this search so users are given several options to branch out their search. The catalog could have a built-in "I'm Feeling Lucky" function similar to Google's Search Engine, or even a recommendation function similar to Amazon's "User Who Searched for This Product Also Searched For..."

Seen on Gizmodo.
Video via University of Chicago