Wednesday, July 25, 2012

University of Chicago Library Visit

The University of Chicago Library Visit

Mansueto Library  view from behind circulation desk.
Recently a group of librarians visited the new storage facility of the University of Chicago Library called the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (see their web site for more information.  In a time when people are asking about the need for print collections, the University of Chicago is making a strong statement that both print and electronic digital collections have a place in the information seeking universe.  While many libraries need off-site storage for their little materials, none have the “near-site” solution that the U of C built.  Off site storage tends to be a self fulfilling prophecy.  Materials are removed from the main stack area and moved to a storage area that has a lower cost to operate.  This is not a new concept – 40 years ago when I was a student page, I visited the off-site warehouse to retrieve books. We had to walk there because it was New York City.  It was so difficult to visit that we only went once a week.

Robotic arm in action
A few years ago the University of Chicago Libraries, which acquires about 150,000 volumes per year, realized that the stacks were getting full.  They needed a solution that would support the need to browse and keep access to little used materials. Their web site ( and an article that appeared in the July 24, 2011 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (   “A High-Tech Library Keeps Books at Faculty Fingertips—With Robot Help” by  Marc Parry.  The Mansueto Library was built with underground storage for about 3 million volumes. They expect the space will be filled in 18 years.  Businesses have been using robotic storage for many years to retrieve parts, books, or packaged goods.  Mansueto Library is the largest library installation of this kind of robotic searching.  Chicago State University has a smaller version.  While videos are posted of the search arms are posted, seeing the arm in operation is an almost unbelievable experience.  The elegance of a single arm moving up and down on a track that moves the arm along the floor is an amazing show of elegance.   This is a picture of one of the robotic arms in actions.  The elegance of operation makes one feels as if you are in the middle of a science fiction movie.  No video can compare the viewing the arm in action in the context of the rest of the library.

The U of C Library has made a commitment to both print and digital resources.  The new facility has labs for conservation and repair of materials along with scanners, cameras and a studio for digitizing materials.  Routine 8.5 x 11” papers are digitized with desktop scanners while large, valuable or fragile materials are photographed with more complex scanners or in the studio.  Some books will be available on the library’s web site to allow scholars from anywhere to examine them, while the original is stored in a protected environment.

When I told some of my non-librarian friends about this visit some asked, “Do people still use paper books? “  Others said, “I love the touch and feel of books.”  This summarizes the two extremes.  Electronic resources augment and complement paper resources.  We teach students to use both tools.  Another person asked about the future of libraries.  They should be asking about the future of information services. Libraries will have to continuously change to meet the needs of their users.  Hopefully the vendors will not force changes that are unneeded and unwanted.

This summer I have been cataloging an historical collection of LP records. At one time mono and stereo records could not be played on the same equipment.  Records were published in mono and stereo versions. Eventually the records producers learned how to manufacture records and playback equipment that would work on both media. I was amused to see many records have the comment: “Your record will never become obsolete.”  While most of the music published today is digital, a few people still like the warmth of the sound from vinyl records.  While most of the music recordings have been reissued in CD format, many of the spoken word and instructional records will never be reissued. Some of the records from small publishers and little known artists will never be reissued.  This collection will be a valuable asset to our historical collections.

The record industry had many challenges.  In the 1920’s Bell Laboratories experimented with the first stereo recordings.  Some orchestras and their conductors refused to participate in any kind of recordings because they thought records would diminish concert attendance.  Other conductors saw recordings as an opportunity to reach new audiences and have new forms of income. 

The future of libraries is to serve the reader with information in a timely manner – in print, non-print, and digital.  The near-term storage is one answer to keeping materials for future scholars.  Scholars can browse the regular stacks for the most recent or useable materials while some infrequently used materials are only a few minutes away in controlled storage.