February 16, 2018

One Technology That Will Change the Academic Library Experience | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellAdopting new technologies is now commonplace for academic librarians, but one emerging technology stands to change both how libraries function and the symbolic nature of their collections.

New construction of academic library buildings or major renovation projects are infrequent, but there are several each year. Eventually, to maintain the viability of the library as an educational facility, the need for a major renovation or new facility comes to the attention of the trustees. As each new library project is planned, how and where to store print collections will be a major consideration for each institution. There are trade-offs to be made between providing access to print and the usability of the facility. Do you want to offer people the opportunity to browse books or choose from more study rooms, an innovation center, or some new programmatic space we have yet to imagine? While you might think the obvious choice is traditional open-stack shelving, there are two factors that may explain why the vast majority of future library building and renovation projects will opt for automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS).

Cost and Flexibility Factors

Major building projects are expensive. The design must account for maximum flexibility and squeeze the most out of every dollar. That’s where economics and space design matter. While open-stack shelving is initially less expensive than high-density automated storage, when accounting for the per square foot cost of open stacks and routine maintenance, the cost of open-stack shelving​ is significantly higher over time. Open stacks require more square footage. If the new library construction budget allows for 200,000 square feet, should half of that be dedicated to open stacks? The real cost of open-stack shelving is the opportunity cost. By that I mean the cost of losing space for people. High-density storage allows much more of that 200,000 square feet to be designed for service and study space. If cost were no factor, by all means, a building could devote thousands of square feet just to stacks and still have plenty of people space. But costs do matter. High-density storage offers an efficient way to keep a large collection on-site while maximizing available floor space. While off-site high-density warehouse-type shelving would be even cheaper, the trade-off with an internal automated storage system is adding additional retrieval time and decreasing potential browsability.

It’s the Trend

Academic librarians are familiar with several of the big profile ASRS installations over the last few years, such as those at North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library and the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library. According to Todd Hunter of Dematic, the firm has installed 19 automated library systems in the United States, in addition to one in Canada and two in Australia. It has two more installations for 2016. There are competitors installing similar ASRS elsewhere. Two recent new library construction projects, at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University and Virginia’s Liberty University, feature the ASRS. Now we hear about ASRS installations at new buildings where we might not expect to see them. The ASRS is for more than research libraries. For example, the recently opened learning commons building at Marywood University in Scranton, PA, an institution of approximately 3,500 students, features an ASRS. You might say that fewer than 100 academic libraries with an ASRS, out of thousands of colleges and universities, hardly establish a transformation of collections. The real trend may be the power of the ASRS drastically to reinvent how community members engage with collections.

Bookless (but not really) Libraries

Marywood has made the somewhat controversial decision to offer few browsable stacks in its new building. Libraries that choose to put all the books in the ASRS are not technically “bookless,” but to the casual observer they are devoid of books with which users can interact. It’s likely we will see more academic institutions decide to devote as much space as possible to people by placing the bulk of their collections in the ASRS.

Why the ASRS Will Dominate

Does the trend toward ASRS installations foretell a transformation in the way academic libraries are designed and operated? How much will it impact the relationship community members have with the collection? It may be too soon to tell, but each new install diminishes prior obstacles to acceptance. For example:

  • It will malfunction, making it impossible to retrieve books
    • Existing installations have proven fairly reliable
    • There is a backup generator in the event of a power failure
    • Maintenance can be pricey, but internal facilities management can handle some routine tasks
  • Future space flexibility is limited with the structure integrated into the building
    • While it’s easier to eliminate open stacks to open up floor space, in the unlikely event there is no longer a reason to store print books, the ASRS could be retrofitted as floor space
    • As collections go digital, the ASRS is positioned as an efficient, on-site archive for preserving print. Print may never go away entirely, but inevitably ebooks will reign supreme, making open stacks even less relevant
  • Browsing and serendipitous book discovery are irreparably compromised
    • Not to be denied as a potential negative but this is going to happen anyway as collections shift from print to digital
    • Technology will introduce new ways to browse and discover collections, such as touch-screen browsing of facsimiles of physical items; book holograms are not inconceivable
    • Nothing stops patrons from requesting and retrieving dozens of books and then browsing them at their leisure
    • Academic librarians will develop more creative ways to ensure that community members have collisions with the collections
  • Adoption of the ASRS will anger faculty, alumni, and other stakeholders
    • Libraries built today must be guided by a vision for the future user as opposed to today’s community member
    • As more automated systems are implemented, fears about access and loss of browsing will be mitigated
    • Once community members see the ASRS in action, they are more confident in the choice

Symbolic Change is the Hardest

Despite evidence that the ASRS is a good option for achieving a balance between maximizing people space and providing access to collections, library traditionalists will protest that the ASRS eliminates the serendipitous discovery afforded by open stacks. My own institution is planning a new library building to open in 2018. Without question, the planned ASRS is generating the most interest and stimulating discussion. Everyone wants to know how it will work, how many books it will hold, or how long it will take to get a book. Far fewer have expressed concerns about the loss of open-stack browsing, but that is a legitimate challenge with the ASRS. I asked Rick Lugg, executive director of OCLC’s Sustainable Collection Services, to share his perspective on where the ASRS fits into the future of library collection management:

“Concerns about storing or sharing print book collections boil down to two core issues: discovery and delivery. Both must be addressed to create a viable new solution for managing monographs. An ASRS can assure delivery within minutes, but the discovery challenge remains. Pioneering efforts like NC State’s Virtual Browse show the potential for designing browsing and serendipity into discovery layers. Full-text indexing (e.g., Google Books) will ultimately enable monographs discovery in a way that in-stacks browsing never can. As we learn to couple enhanced discovery with the rapid delivery and high-density storage offered by an ASRS, we’ll reap two benefits: a better user experience and better use of library space.”

There is something intrinsically symbolic about the potential for serendipitous discovery, even if the number of students and faculty actually browsing stacks is far smaller than in pre-Internet days. No doubt the library experience is forever changed when open stacks go away. The ultimate cyberbrowsing technology is still in development, but some glimpses of the possibilities, at both Hunt and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), suggest that we can adapt to new and possibly even better ways to browse the collections and discover what lies within them.

Don’t Take Away Our Card Catalog

The ASRS is a new technology that stands to change radically a process with which we are all comfortable. Being taken out of that comfort zone can create an unpleasant reaction, whether it’s a totally new way of storing and retrieving books or moving from physical card catalogs to online public access replacements. I recall faculty who reacted as though OPACs heralded the end of research libraries. I can well imagine the hand-wringing and consternation that ensued when libraries first decided to shift from closed stacks to open, browsable ones. Community members surely opposed it, fearing that books would be manhandled, vandalized, or lost. They failed to see the potential advantages of allowing people to connect physically with the books. Now we are taking a new direction, and, as in the past, adjustment and embracing the advantages and new possibilities will take time. Just as automated catalogs and open stacks are now the norm, expect the same for the ASRS in due time. It will reshape a significant part of the current library experience, but the new one it creates will afford academic librarians more space to design a library experience for a hopeful future rather than replicate a familiar past.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. The move into the Learning Commons at Marywood and the addition of the ASRS has drastically changed the user experience. Students are still defining the space and learning how to access materials from the ASRS. I feel that we are moving forward in a space that is about knowledge creation. As someone in the information business, I believe we need to start elevating other forms of information transfer. I think this is hard to swallow for faculty. The monograph’s status is changing. It is no longer the “top dog.” Kevin Kelly touched on this in his talk called The Technium for Edge.org

    “We are going to make something other. We’re going to use technology to rearrange how we present deep ideas and have people spend the time necessary to master them. I don’t think it’s a matter of either it’s going to be books or video, neither of those are really going to work.”


    So what is going to work? I am not sure but central to knowledge growth is information exchange and collaboration. We have the space in the Marywood Learning Commons now. It is exciting to be a part of it!

    • Thanks Leslie for sharing your experience from the new learning commons at Marywood.

      You make a good point that these are the early days of the ASRS and we have a lot to learn about the impact it will have on patrons’ use of the collection. Thanks for sharing the link.

  2. I wish my institution – which is planning a gut renovation of a 1930s building – was able to consider an ASRS, but given the configuration and structure of our building, it’s not possible. The architects and facilities folks both investigated it – but it’s not feasible. Drat.

  3. I think you’re being overly optimistic about the future reliability of ASRS. This is a new technology still, so short-term reliability is to be expected. Having back-up generators is a no-brainer. My concern is about their viability on a longer time horizon given our reliance on external vendors to support them.

    Consider the case of electronic compact shelving, which is becoming increasingly problematic to support. Vendors that existed 30 years ago no longer exist, or support contracts and maintenance are becoming increasingly expensive due to shifting priorities from vendors. Some libraries are ripping the electronics out and converting them to manual systems to make them maintainable.

    So, what happens with implemented ASRS systems in 30 or 40 years? We can hope that the vendors will still be around, but I wouldn’t bet on it. We can mitigate risk by implementing systems that are in use by industry, but that’s no guarantee. Will your library be able to afford a new one in a few decades when the system is no longer supported? Good luck with that.

    • StevenB says:

      Thanks for sharing your concerns Jorge. There’s no question that we may be taking a gamble on the ASRS today. Future maintenance is a concern but some of the ASRS systems have been in place for nearly a decade now and continue to perform well. I’ve not heard of any significant problems with electronic compact shelving, unless it’s lived beyond it’s anticipated lifespan and is due to be replaced. I’m not sure why you think vendors of automated storage systems won’t be around in 30 years since these systems are heavily used in industry. If anything, they are likely to be improved or replaced by even more sophisticated systems. We appear to have 30 to 40 years to figure it out.