UTS Library is moving the majority of its collection into an underground automated storage and retrieval system. 900,000 books, eighty percent of the library’s collection, will eventually be stored in the system and retrieved by a robotic crane arm. The LRS will store books in bins rather than on shelves so that books can be packed together more densely, significantly reducing the space required to store the collection.
A Black Box of Books
The LRS represents a dramatic shift not only in how the library is used but also how the collection is perceived. Like the complex machinations of baggage handling facilities, the LRS and its contents will not be publicly visible. The familiar aesthetic qualities of books (colour, size, smell, weight, texture, dustiness, age) are intuitive and expressive properties made inaccessible by the retrieval system. People must interact with items in the LRS initially not as physical objects but as abstract concepts (As an entry in a catalogue, as a title, as a digital image).
Art can express, interpret and critique this unfamiliar and unseen system and the books inside it. The LRS is a rich site for exploration and visualisation, especially if the LRS database is designed to allow artworks to read data about the current state of the system. This information could be used to create digital or physical artworks—kinetic and interactive installations, projections, soundscapes, or mobile apps, among many other forms.
Beyond Call Numbers
Libraries traditionally order their physical collections using call numbers. Librarians assign a unique call number to each book that indicates both the topic of the book and its shelf location relative to other books in the collection. Each book is shelved in a consistent, relative position within the collection and the entire collection is meticulously ordered into a spectrum of knowledge:
Call numbers are very useful in libraries where people browse shelves to find books. But books about several different topics can obviously only exist physically in one place. Should Symmetry in chaos: a search for pattern in mathematics, art, and nature be be shelved with books about systems, books about mathematics, books about art or books about natural sciences? Should The Media’s Influence on What We Buy be shelved with books about the media or books about consumption? Librarians use logical and meticulous guidelines to order collections but these are nonetheless inherently subjective and preface one order over all others.
In contrast, the order of books in the LRS is arbitrary and constantly changing. Books are not assigned specific or even relative locations. Instead they are slotted into the most convenient available spaces and the location of each item is recorded by the system in a directory1. Call numbers are irrelevant in an LRS; the relative location of books is practically meaningless. A bin may contain books about ancient greek, computer science, electrical engineering, constitutional law, political economy, or any other topic.
Digital tools for searching and browsing the collection can allow visitors to filter or reorder the collection in virtually any way. It would be practically impossible to reshelve the collection from the smallest to the largest book, or by colour, or to select all of the square books, or to order the collection so that each title rhymes with the next. When there is no dominant order to the collection, creative or lyrical orders are as valid a starting point for the visitor as any other.
The LRS Project Overview on the UTS Campus Masterplan website includes plans of the LRS and some basic data about the project. UTS Librarian Mal Booth has compiled an album of photos of storage and retrieval systems in other libraries.
The University of Chicago Library demonstrates clearly how its automatic retrieval system has allowed the library to design better spaces for people:
1. Books in the LRS are not stored randomly (frequently requested books may be stored together in bins that are easier to access; books of similar sizes are stored together; CDs or DVDs are also stored together). Within a bin, items may be ordered by call number to make it easier to find an item in a bin. ↑