2012, a library space odyssey
by MARIE THOMAS MCNAUGHTON, Towns Correspondent
The storage component is three stories tall. There are no external windows. It’s fire and earthquake safe, with human access limited to one set of locked doors. It’s possibly the safest place on the Sonoma State University campus, and it’s called “The Vault.”
SSU’s Automated Storage and Retrieval System is the most advanced technology in library services today, and it serves the library portion of the Jean & Charles Schulz Information Center.
A between-floors track system allows electronic transfer vehicles a little bigger than a bread box to shuttle materials to and from the second-floor circulation desk.
But the three robots never leave and so far haven’t complained.
It’s the third such system installed in the United States at a cost of some $2 million and has been maximizing real estate costs since the opening of the Schulz Center in 2000.
“The main rationale was cost savings over traditional shelf storage,” says Brandon Dudley, director of library technology.
But everybody loves it, staff and patrons alike. It’s one of the most popular stops on new student tours, and visiting VIPs often request a peek.
Automated library systems in general offer a 50 percent savings in space over conventional shelving. With three stories of pure storage, SSU’s Vault multiplies the space tenfold.
“It has freed up space for more vibrant, dynamic learning and study space,” says Paula Hammett, an SSU librarian since 1992. “The technology has had the unexpected benefit of making the library a more human place.
“Now there’s room for music, the art gallery, chess, group study. We also have moveable chairs, tables, whiteboards and a flexibility to accommodate the new styles of learning that students these days prefer.”
As Hammett walks around the facility today, she can see study groups at the whiteboards and know that chemistry, math, dance notation and language arts are happening.
“We still have the comfy overstuffed chairs for reading alone. We have quiet and even quieter study zones (no keyboarding) for total concentration.”
As currently configured, the storage vault can hold 750,000 items. Built next to a parking lot, it could be doubled in size if necessary.
Its contents are primarily materials that have not circulated in the past five years, bound journals, archival theses, reference materials, administration records and government documents.
They currently total 390,000 items from SSU collections, as well as 60,000 books and other materials from San Francisco State University’s Leonard Library, which reopens this spring with its own automated storage system.
SSU’s was built and is serviced by Dematic North America, whose customers range from Adidas to Coca-Cola, auto parts and hardware.
“We are their smallest client,” says Dudley. “They usually design and serve warehouses measured in acres.”
SSU’s vault features three aisles of steel storage units filled with bar-coded books, journals and booklets that are tended by three robotic cranes.
When a patron searching the library’s computerized catalog system finds that his or her selection is not “in the stacks” or on easily accessible library shelving, a simple click on the computer screen can request that the item be retrieved.
The request is forwarded to a worker in the vault who can direct the robots to find the item in the warehouse.
Location within the vault is completely random and tracked through bar code scanning. (If the book is not scanned properly before being placed in a bin, it can be lost for as long as the three years it takes to continuously audit the facility.)
An automated crane will retrieve one of 6,000 metal bins and brings it to the worker, who can remove the correct book, scan it, set it aside and then replace it with a book that needs storage.
Groups of retrieved books are then placed in the electronic transfer vehicles and sent to circulation for pick up by library patrons. The vehicles are closed and hold up to 150 pounds of strapped-in material. They sometimes travel upside-down while navigating the building, and several units can be on the tracks at the same time due to siding areas like those on a regular rail system.
(Not even Mister Roger’s trolley did that.)
The whole process takes 10 to 20 minutes and happens 30 to 40 times a day.
For more information, visit http://library.sonoma.edu/about/ars.php or become a community library member and try it for yourself.