June 13, 2016

We need to talk about robot librarians


Librarian? (Image via Wikipedia)

Librarian? (Image via Wikipedia)

Hot on the heels of one experiment with bookseller-less bookselling, Singapore is seeing yet another robot incursion into a book-handling field typically dominated by humans: library shelving. Coby McDonald reports for Popular Science:

Thanks to researchers at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), librarians may get some robotic help in keeping books in their proper place.

A*STAR roboticists have created an autonomous shelf-scanning robot called AuRoSS that can tell which books are missing or out of place. Many libraries have already begun putting RFID tags on books, but these typically must be scanned with hand-held devices. AuRoSS uses a robotic arm and RFID scanner to catalogue book locations, and uses laser-guided navigation to wheel around unfamiliar bookshelves. AuRoSS can be programmed to scan the library shelves at night and instruct librarians how to get the books back in order when they arrive in the morning.

Now, to be fair, this robot isn’t actually doing the shelving. Rather, it’s documenting which books are out of place so that a hard-working human can do the literal heavy lifting. But if you’re a robot-sensitive librarian (or just a robot-related-news junkie, or just someone who’s read this book), you know this isn’t new.

We’ve seen recent steps toward automation in the library arts before. There’s this one in Wales, which does physical book searches; there’s these ones in Chicago, which pull volumes from restricted underground archives; and then these ones in Connecticut, which are not technically librarians but are definitely STEM advocates. (Readers from Canada may also already be familiar with the idea of a genial, publicly employed robot named Astar.)

The scourge of misplaced books remains one of the greatest death-by-a-thousand-cuts annoyances a library can suffer on a large scale. The source of error, for the most part, is the patron; or, rather, the patron is the most uncontrollable variable. Someone picks a book off the shelf and sets it down somewhere else — and before you know it, that book is effectively lost to the ages.

Having a system for collecting patron discards is extremely important, and depending on the size and layout of your library (not to mention the size of your staff) it can become cumbersome, which is why the margin of error will never disappear. If you’re a library, books will wind up in the wrong spot, whether by patron or librarian. When I was a student I worked several summers at a large university library comprised of a dozen floors organized by the Library of Congress system. I became well acquainted with the tics of the late-shift shelving brain: transposing 0’s with O’s, reversing the digits of numeric codes.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Are robots on the verge of replacing human librarians?” Of course not. Librarians perform tasks far more specialized and complex than simple inventory control. But at what point can automation replace good old-fashioned human elbow grease in the shelving department? That’s unclear. Here are things that human beings can do that AuRoss cannot:

  1. Walk up and down stairs
  2. Shelve books
  3. Notice a book that’s fallen behind or gotten wedged somewhere in the shelf structure
  4. Experience the sublime thrill of discovering a mis-shelved book and uniting it with a waiting patron

So, while AuRoSS can handle overnight shifts without developing a sleep disorder and takes manpower off the otherwise onerous task of “shelf reading,” as they used to call it at my old job, the cost and practicality of libraries’ adopting similar technology will likely be outweighed for the foreseeable future by the ease of simply paying people an hourly wage to do manual labor in a quiet, climate-controlled space filled with books.

Funding that would pave the way for similar automation would likely be better spent in the short term on staffing, programming, and community engagement. At least for now, while the robots remain under our control.



Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.