Monday, 15 December, 2003

Automating libraries

I've long wondered why some things aren't automated.  A public library, for example.  20 years ago my dad and I determined that all the technology required to fully automate a lending library was easily available and not even especially difficult.  Picture an ATM-like interface that reads a card and presents a simple menu of books.  Scroll through the list or enter the ISBN of the book you want and it's delivered through the slot in a few minutes.  No fuss, no muss.  Behind the scenes is a room full of books, all with the ISBN or other identifying numbers printed on the spines, and a robotic reader/grabber that finds the book and delivers it.  Returns are handled similarly:  put a book in the slot and the machine takes over, reading the number off the spine and directing the robotics to replace it in the stacks.  This has to be less expensive and more efficient than the current system of clueless volunteers who more often than not direct you to the wrong place.

It doesn't replace librarians, though, who are invaluable research assistants.  Nor can it match the allure of a quiet library reading room.  But for most people who just want to get the latest Tom Clancy novel or a stack full of research material from the library, it'd be a huge time saver.  To this day I can't understand why it hasn't been done.