Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Storing Up Treasures Under the Earth

The University of Chicago has opened its new library, the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (named for Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto and his wife Rika, both UChicago graduates, who donated $25 million to the library expansion project). The Chicago Tribune says that "students seem to love" the new library's glass dome design "because it lets natural light pour inside, liberating them from the university’s dimly-lit reading rooms." The library probably looks best when it's sunny; it seems rather cold and sterile in the pics that Jerry Coyne took on a rainy day:

(Photos by Jerry Coyne of "Why Evolution Is True")

Anyway, the real marvel of the library is not its architecture but its system for storing and retrieving books. The university wanted to keep its media on-site but didn't like the idea of a huge new building that would have crowded existing structures, so books and periodicals are stored in a temperature-controlled underground vault that can hold as many as 3.5 million volumes. Inside the vault are thousands of bins that each hold roughly 100 books sorted by size rather than subject or author, in order to make the most efficient use of the space. When a library patron requests a book at the circulation desk, an automated retrieval system locates the bin containing the desired book, and delivers the whole bin to a human librarian† who retrieves the book and notifies the patron that it's ready to be picked up. The whole process is supposed to take less than 5 minutes.

The university produced a video demonstrating how the system works:

The Chicago Tribune's claims notwithstanding, this library wouldn't be my first choice for a satisfying reading experience, for the same reason that Amazon.com isn't my first choice for finding a good book when I don't have a specific work in mind. Sure, Amazon has good prices and a huge selection of books, but the "Look Inside!" feature (which is available for many, but not all, books) isn't nearly as interesting as scanning a physical shelf of books, comparing volume sizes and dust jacket designs, and flipping through pages to see if a sentence or paragraph jumps out at me.

Still, this new library is intended primarily for research, not casual reading, and I accept that the experience of reading has changed drastically over the centuries. Books have evolved from characters scratched on stone, to wax and clay tablets, to scrolls of papyrus and paper, to bound books, and now to ebooks. As much as I love the feel and smell of old books and the penciled notations of previous owners (or myself, in books I bought back in the days when I still underlined and annotated), a book's most precious quality is its ability to inform and transport us to places that we couldn't otherwise experience. So long as there are comfy chairs and mugs of tea at hand when I'm ready to be transported, I can deal with whatever container the ideas come in.

† When a job title such as "librarian" is prefaced with the word "human," I invariably think of Harlan Ellison's short story, "The Human Operators," which was also made into an episode of "The New Outer Limits." (The video is rated "TV-MA" and may not be appropriate for younger audiences.)

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