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UTS library to go underground with robotics

Step into the library of the future, where waiting for what seems like ages while a librarian with a trolley fills requests has been replaced by robots that find, deliver and return books on demand, and within minutes.

There's a technological change happening in libraries that is transforming the way those sources of information are being used. No longer are libraries only book repositories, filled with stacks floor to ceiling and shelves that shroud most of the library floor.

As part of a $1 billion upgrade of its city campus, the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) is installing an underground automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) for its library collection.

The ASRS is in response to the need to house a growing collection and free up physical space for the new 'library of the future', which is to open in 2015 to 2016, so that people can be at the centre of the library rather than the books.

Having the extra space will allow for more interactive learning environments where students can work more collaboratively in the library -- for example, mixed media spaces for video editing and production.

The ASRS, which will connect to the new library, consists of six 15-metre high robotic cranes that operate bins filled with books. When an item is being stored or retrieved, the bins will move up and down aisles as well as to and from the library. Items will be stored in bins based on their spine heights.

About 900,000 items will be stored underground, starting with 60 per cent of the library's collection and rising to 80 per cent. About 250,000 items purchased from the last 10 years will be on open shelves in the library. As items age, they will be relegated to the underground storage facility.

The ASRS integrates radio frequency identification technology where each item is tagged with a unique identifier so that they can be tracked for retrieval. RFID acts as a link between the warehouse management system for the ASRS and the library catalogue.

Students will be able to request an item in the underground storage facility via the library catalogue and have it delivered to a library service desk within 15 minutes.

UTS university librarian, Mal Booth, who is working closely on the project with the university's CIO, Christine Burns, says the library retrieval system is the first in the world to integrate RFID technology, making it slightly different to Macquarie University's ASRS that uses barcodes.

He says it can "store up to seven times the amount of books in a given normal library space" and can store items efficiently; many items can be scanned at a time using RFID, whereas barcodes only allow items to be scanned one at a time.

Besides using RFID for tracking and retrieving items, the university also plans to use it to collect and analyse data to help design its new library. By tracking the location of items, Booth says it will help determine how students make use of the library's collection and where they are most likely to browse books.

"In the second phase of RFID we want to be able to be a bit cleverer in tracking where books have been used, how they move around campus," Booth says.

"Previously, we didn't have the capacity to collect data on how those books were being used. With RFID, we can more easily collect data by quickly scanning a run of books that have been retrieved on a trolley, or by having a smart shelf on the trolley.

"That could collect data like, for example, all the science books are on the fifth floor but they are always used on the third floor. It tells us where science people want to study. So having that data helps us design the new library. RFID enables that; it allows us to do that data collection."

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When implementing RFID, Burns says there were some challenges in finding a vendor with the appropriate experience in scaling the technology for an academic library and working within the tight timeframes of a university.

"There's been a real challenge on the RFID front despite there being a lot of talk about where RFID might be useful. There's not a great deal of deep experience in Australia with how we use it, particularly on this scale. So that was one of the big challenges of the project," Burns says.

"The windows you have to do things with the IT projects for universities tend to be pretty small because you want to make any major changes while the students are on vacation and you absolutely need everything up and running before the start of semester.

"It's not easy to go out and educate an entire student population [on the new system] so things need to be very intuitive and easy to use. That is often a very big challenge. Projects can't slip because you would have to [wait] for an entire semester and you don't want to introduce a major change in the middle of semester."

In addition to the ASRS, the university is planning to move beyond the traditional library catalogue and build smart systems to offer more innovative ways of searching and discovering items online, such as crowd curated suggestions and recommendations. This is to help facilitate more use of the library's collection.

Booth says the problem with a catalogue, which is essentially an automated card index, is that it doesn't allow for much discovery; it can limit users' ability to find items they don't know about.

"With the catalogue, we are stuck with taxonomies that go back to the Dewey decimal system and the Library of Congress and subject headings that aren't always meaningful to users or library users. So we are hoping to offer something around that but not just by text, by visual means, by recommendations, by social means," Booth says.

"It's a totally different process. We're currently working on proper discovery systems ... not catalogue search systems, but real discovery systems that allow students to find books by the way people imagine things, the way people look for things in forms other than text-based searching."

Reflecting on how the project has developed so far, Burns says building a relationship between IT and the library has played an important part in ensuring the project runs smoothly. She says the two teams have developed a stronger partnership due to working on the project together and have gained a better understanding of how they both operate.

"One of the really nice things about this project is that is really shows how well you can partner, so working with experts within the university faculties in different areas. I think IT teams often talk about wanting to partner with the business but this has been a really nice example of making that a reality, so bringing in expertise across the two teams to make the project [a success]."


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