Robots hoard the books at mechanized library

At new University of Chicago library, five underground robot cranes help fetch your books from storage bins in the vault.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read

Library robot
A robotic crane rests between columns of bins at the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library. University of Chicago

If books are dying a slow death, libraries are also living on borrowed time. But that didn't stop the University of Chicago from sinking $81 million into the new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, which ironically doesn't have any books on display.

The entire book collection is stored underground in a five-story chamber that can hold some 35,000 metal bins. If you want to actually crack open a dead tree and read its paper pages, you'll have to ask a robot to fetch it for you from the vault.

robot crane
A robotic crane between racks of bins (click to enlarge). University of Chicago

The five underground robot cranes, apparently made by Dematic, retrieve the storage bins in minutes. As the vid below explains, a human librarian opens the bin and gets your bar-coded book. Then you're free to read the tome in the light-filled egg-shaped Grand Reading Room, which is otherwise devoid of books. Welcome to the automated library.

The robotized storage system makes lots of sense in terms of book preservation and efficiency; since books are packed by size instead of subject the vault apparently is seven times more efficient than conventional shelf storage.

The library, named after donor Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto and his wife, is also meant to reflect how most research is done today--looking up text online, using Google Books, as well as consulting physical books.

Will Chicago's automatic egg become a model for future libraries? I love libraries, and I'm sitting in one right now as I write. One thing I like most about them is that they're full of books. Books that I'm interested in, and books that I'm not interested in.

I happen to be sitting in the art section, surrounded by spines with titles like "Japonisme," "Warhol Live," and "The Sun King's Garden." I didn't summon them by robot. They're just there, waiting for someone to take a casual or serious interest. After all, the beauty of analog technology is the bonus experiences you don't expect.

I could wax poetic about the fuzzy feeling I get thinking about all these books, and the work that went into them, standing in quiet rows, but I'll spare you. I'm just glad they're here in the sunlight, no doubt decaying prematurely, instead of in an underground chamber.