May 28, 2015
Budapest’s roller coaster for books
by Nick Davies
Over the weekend, Gizmodo ran a delightful photo essay by Attila Nagy, about the Telelift, essentially a roller coaster for books that shuttles them around a library in Budapest, Hungary.
Nagy visited the National Széchényi Library to see how the Telelift works in person. Not only does it look cool, the story of how it came to be installed in Hungary is pretty fascinating itself. The conveyor system has existed since 1985, manufactured by a West German company, which made it difficult to get the machine into a Warsaw Pact country. Or rather, the library was able to get the main parts—carts and rails—without issue, but ran into issues getting the pieces that would allow them to install the full Telelift, which were under an embargo.
Working around CoCom regulations, people working with the library established dummy companies so that they could order what they needed without raising any red flags, a process that ended up taking nine years to get the missing pieces, and costing about $1 million. To make matters more difficult, none of the smuggled parts came with any kind of identification. The Hungarian engineers had to rely on wiring diagrams in order to deduce how to assemble everything. And from behind the Iron Curtain, they weren’t able to have any contact with the manufacturer, leading to “continuous alterations and improvised solutions for the emerging problems.”
The Telelift system is rather ingenious, and remains totally analog even after 30 years, operated using carts with magnetic switches that guide them to the right place. Each cart can shuttle books from the library’s stacks to any of its reading rooms in about 10-15 minutes, no small feat for a library that holds (per Wikipedia, at any rate) some 2.5 million books.
The Telelift at the National Széchényi Library has 3.7 miles of steel rails, 40 stations for loading and unloading, and 45 control panels, and can serve 300-350 requests every day,
You can see how it works below, in a video posted to an article on the same story by Crystal Paul for Bustle (although this comes from a different library, in Stuttgart, Germany):
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.