It’s a sign of the times, a sign of libraries to come. The Blake Library at the University of Technology, Sydney has accumulated 600,000 books since it opened in 1984, and it’s fast running out of space. A solution has come with the redevelopment of the Broadway campus, and the chance to build a new future-proofed library, fitted with technology that will ease the squeeze on bookshelves. Only a third of the current collection will remain on the library floor, with 400,000 less frequently borrowed books marked for storage underground.
The new library has been fitted with an automated storage and retrieval system, or ASRS, which lies under the new Alumni Green. Used widely in transport and logistics industries, the ASRS is essentially a storeroom packed with rows of galvanised steel bins stacked 15 metres high. Six large cranes ferry books from the bins to a book lift, connected directly to the new library. With the help of radio-frequency identification technology (RFID), students can expect to have a book in their hands less than five minutes after selecting it online.
University Librarian Mal Booth is convinced the new technology is a worthwhile investment.
“It’s only a six million dollar system – it’s as cheap as chips,” he says. “It’s a quarter of the cost of building a conventional library big enough to store a collection of this size.”
And he’s confident there won’t be any glitches in the new system that leave people yearning for the old-fashioned approach.
“The stuff doesn’t crash, it’s very reliable,” he says. And if there’s a power failure? Mr Booth is sending his team members for training in working at heights, in case they need to abseil down the shelving.
Some have questioned the loss of traditional search and discovery methods, with ASRS technology threatening library-users’ ability to wander through aisles and browse. But Mr Booth believes the new technology will actually improve the library experience.
“The way most libraries are designed, the books are at the centre and the people are at the periphery,” he says.
Open spaces that encourage sharing of ideas and new creative forms of discovery will be at the heart of the new library.
“Libraries are no longer simply about books,” Mr Booth says. “Knowledge and culture are created in ways other than in text and printed format.”
The new library will house exhibitions of artwork and digital media, and have multimedia stations for students to listen to music and watch videos.
The key to unlocking the library’s creative potential has been its Artist-in-Residence program, introduced in 2012.
Chris Gaul, a Sydney-based designer, was the inaugural Artist-in-Residence at Blake Library, and developed a world-first digital catalogue browsing system that has overcome some of the shortfalls of the ASRS.
Mr Gaul colour-coded the library collection based on Dewey decimal numbers and visualised this as a colourful ribbon that is now displayed on the library website. Online users can click anywhere along the ribbon to bring up a pictorial representation of the book collection, displayed on a digital shelf. Scrolling left or right allows users to view books further along the shelf, just as it would appear if they were walking down an aisle in the library.
A future-proofed library seems a world away from the unsightly rows of metal shelving and timber laminate desk cubicles of yesteryear. But it’s not all out with the old.
Despite three-quarters of new purchases arriving in digital format, the University of Technology, Sydney still buys over 20,000 print items every year, and Mal Booth emphasises there will always be a place for books in libraries. And robots will not be replacing librarians just yet.
While the role of librarians is rapidly evolving, Mr Booth believes his older staff members still have a lot to offer.
“What we’ve been trying to do is to partner up the younger people with new skills with the older people who have knowledge that you don’t want to lose,” he says.
The mentoring program at Blake Library has had far-reaching benefits that ensure staff members are equipped with skills to take them well into the 21st century.
“Librarians who don’t understand the digital age are fast making themselves redundant,” Mr Booth says.
“They need to know how to create digital products themselves in order to fully understand how to help people find and use them; they can’t just be pointers.”
The Blake Library is getting with the times, and it’s setting the pace for libraries around Australia. After a recent visit to the University of Technology, Sydney, Dr Alex Byrne, NSW State Librarian, announced plans to build a similar automated storage and retrieval system underneath the Domain.
Search and discovery now encompasses much more than looking at a row of dusty books on a shelf, and Mal Booth is confident the new library will be the hub of the university.
“It should be a place that connects people, knowledge and culture,” he says.
University libraries are moving into an exciting new era, and future generations of tertiary students and academics certainly have a lot to look forward to.