domelgPublishers are trying to make e-books act more like print books—but some future library concepts are making print books act more like e-books. In particular, the $81 million Joe and Rika Mansueto Library that has just opened at the University of Chicago.

SingularityHub’s Peter Murray has a feature on this fascinating library that stores 3.5 million books and journal volumes in a five-story-tall system of bins that only needs one-seventh as much space to house the books as a normal library. The bins are organized by book size, not by category or other classification, and books are retrieved and returned through a system of robotic cranes. Murray writes:

The library’s unique construction is meant to accommodate the way research is done today: online. In the case an old journal article isn’t available online or a book hasn’t been scanned due to copyright limitations, for example, then the student can request the book right there on the computer. The automated storage and retrieval system will deliver the volume to the circulation desk, usually within the five minutes it takes for the student to walk there. Oversized and novelty books are also stored for retrieval.

The university touts the library as having lowered operating costs, energy efficiency, and better archival and preservation of delicate materials thanks to the sealed, airtight bins.

Murray also speculates on the future of the library in general, noting Seth Godin’s vision of a future library as being something very like the book-free lobby and collaboration space of the Mansueto, only without the 5 stories of books beneath it. Murray thinks that physical libraries will become less prevalent as many of the research tasks that were formerly done there are taken over by the computer at home instead.

For myself, I find the idea of the Mansueto library rather impressive, though I do have to wonder what happens when the robot cranes break down, as they inevitably will. (Maybe that’s why there are five of them, so that if one goes out the others can take up the slack.) And as some complain is the case with e-books, the system also eliminates the possibility of shelf browsing and unexpected serendipity. But for catering to those who know or know how to find exactly what they want, this type of system does offer some advantages—though whether the advantages are sufficient to offset the costs is less clear.


  1. May 23-24, the collection and preservation managers from the CIC (big 12 plus University of Chicago) met to discuss implications of share print repository and changing access transactions between print and screen books. Discussions ranged from long-range (20 year) strategy on the role of libraries to page level validation of shared books.

    Consensus (in advance of a meeting of library directors that would follow immediately) was that while the local importance of special collections persists, the frequently duplicated and increasingly screen displayed general book collections can be remotely accessed and no longer need local physical replication. The corollary is that collaboration with a CIC Stored Print Repository will bring reduced library costs and opportunity for re-adaptation of library space. Uncertainty for SPR arises if there is not a high level of trust between consortium libraries and if there is disruptive competitive motive between institutions. The spirit of the discussions suggested that CIC consortial strength would prevail.

    There are preservation risks in SPR that were not discussed. These include unintended consequences of new and novel SPR access routines (i.e. back-up, mastering and authentication roles for print copies) and new end-users (i.e. consortium member). More subterranean preservation issues would include preservation services relocated and reassigned at SPR. Finally, there is the preservation risk, revealed during the micro-film newspaper era, of shifting back-up, mastering and authentication roles to the copy.

    One extreme implication of the CIC SPR discussions is that general print collections may not be needed at all. Everyone appeared to back away from this extreme. More moderate and less risk prone is the cooperative print repository option that permits most participants local space flexibility and service growth while retaining back-up, mastering and authentication attributes of print copy away from the institutional library. A hybrid “distributed” SPR also sounded feasible in which some institutions take on some repository services for the consortium.

    Everyone assumed the SPR would provide continuing physical access to patrons, but this seemed both unlikely and unsustainable to me. More likely new access routines such as scan and re-scan capacity will emerge as well as special requests of entirely new patron types. At the same time the print copies would be ever more sequestered. It also seemed to me that needed SPR validation and certification protocols were not yet formulated. Separate print copy and screen copy verification routines are known or apparent, but the linkage of screen replication with stored print was discussed as both a positive and negative pre-requisite. Further the direct correlation of print item faults with its screen capture faults did not emerge at all.

    Beyond preservation issues, the strategic importance of SPR development is university wide focus on the destiny of the print monograph. In this next step I felt that the transition from print to screen journals was too easily imagined as a model. Also in-play is the continuing function of the university based research library. The new University of Chicago Mansueto Library suggests that print can support scholarship far into the future. But the menageries of the disciplines, of administrative and economic agendas and the confliction of librarians themselves leave room for risk and unintended consequences for cultural transmission.

    I sensed that SPR is inevitable but that inevitable cost reductions are not. For one thing this is a momentous capital rich re-adaptation of the library role in the face of economic, academic and political inertia. To some extent the library should tether itself to the destiny of the physical collections in spite of every techno-pressure and instructional revamping instigating de-coupling. That emphasis can provide a more incremental and option capable displacement of library service from collection maintenance.

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