On Robotic Libraries and Serendipity

The James B. Hunt Jr. Library
The James B. Hunt Jr. Library at NC State University

I just saw this article online today:

Let’s Hope Snøhetta’s New Robotic Library At NC State Isn’t Run By An Evil Super Computer

I think this library is absolutely gorgeous! I really like how peaceful and bright and comfortable it looks inside.

I find this type of robotic technology fascinating. We know that it works – the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago is testament enough to that. Space and storage have been perpetual challenges for libraries for a long, long time. This represents an elegant and cost-effective solution. As one who has long been interested in archival work, I’m excited by the potential this technology has for that field, as well.

It also frees up space to devote to other library services: computers and technology, public use spaces, library programming, etc.

But there’s one thing about robotic libraries that gives me pause – how do they allow for serendipitous discovery?

Some of the fondest memories I have are those moments in my life when I discovered something new and entirely unexpected, things that I would never have thought to seek out on my own. Many of these discoveries were made browsing the stacks in a library. It’s amazing how many of my favorite books and authors came into my life this way, taking me completely by surprise.

In robotic libraries, with the majority of the collection housed underground or otherwise out of reach, I can’t just wander through it all and let things catch my eye. I don’t see how serendipity can exist in a library like this beyond an extremely limited scope.

I think libraries have to go in the direction of increasing automation. I think it solves far more problems for us than it creates. But I’m going to miss the opportunities to be surprised.

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