The Future of Libraries?

'A Long Way from Home'

Last Wednesday, courtesy of RHUL, I visited the British Library‘s lesser-known site in Boston Spa, Wetherby, Yorkshire.

Which, for future reference, is approximately where the little ‘A’ is:
(Thank you, Google)

I had been invited on behalf of the university library to view a new scanning service available nationwide to those who deal with the request and provision of digital resources for teaching. We get all of our scans from the British Library, and all of the high-tec (debatable…) scanning procedures take place up here in Boston Spa. As it turns out, they are rolling out a brand new interface and requesting procedure for people such as me (and the Inter-Library Loans team) who deal with this kind of request for the university.

All very exciting, I know.

However, the most exciting part of all this is the tour of the site. Now, I thought the first view of that amazing column of old books in the British Library’s London Site at St. Pancras was the most impressive shelving I’d seen. Not so. Not so at all. Beautiful as it is, it really is not as impressive as the new ASB building at Boston Spa – which I am now terming ‘The Matrix for Books’.

Will they rise up against us?

The ASB Storage building is 21m high and has a total capacity of 262 kilometres. Even now, I can’t say I really know what that actually means. I am going with absolutely huge, and impressively so. It is staffed by 7 automated cranes, who shelve either one of the 110,994 A1 containers, one of the 2775 A2 containers or one of the 26,361 B1 containers. Now, again, I can’t really tell you I know what that means. So, to illustrate better what this building consists of, here are the pictures I (read: the sci fi geek in me) took:

Shelves, shelves, shelves

Captive books

Scary, isn’t it? And brilliant. To make things feel yet more futuristic, the room itself is very low-lit and rather cold due to the low-oxygen enviroment (to prevent fires breaking out).

It’s purpose? To move low-used books from other British Library sites so that they are securely and safely stored and still accessible. The figure I remember is 7 million books. Again, impressive.

How does it work? Lorry-loads of books arrive at the Work Area warehouse adjacent to the futuristic storage facility. These are unpacked, scanned, recorded and packed into one of the containers – all of which are also barcoded, scanned and recorded. These are then placed on a conveyor belt which takes them into the storage room. They are loaded, automatically, onto one of the cranes, which then whizzes off down its little corridor into the distance and shelves the container, marking its location.
So when a book is requested, it is searched for on the system and its last location in the building is brought up. This is told to the relevant crane which whizzes away and retrieves the relevant container using its barcode and location. This is then brought back, and the book retrieved.

Scary thing number one: when requested books are returned, they are shelved in the next available slot. This relies on the crane to record correctly where it last left the container. Imagine if a computer glitch switched some numbers around? How would the books ever be seen again?!

Scary thing number two: These cranes are doing my job. No, I don’t shelve 7 million books in a purpose-built, climate controlled warehouse, but when someone asks me for help I go to the shelf and look for the book, or when a book is returned I can shelve it. If this little crane does all the shelving and searching – and gods know it’s quicker than I am- what’s the point of me?! We could drill down through Egham Hill and install the same thing there.

We won’t obviously. Founder’s would most likely sink into the abyss and we can’t have that. But seeing the ASB building did make me wonder whether I should feel excited or redundant. I am feeling excited, mostly, and I really do feel as though I’ve seen into the future here. This building was more than impressive, and ingenious, and even though I might be becoming a librarian I can still be progressive- it seems they’re not all stuck in the past or dusty shelves after all!

4 thoughts on “The Future of Libraries?

  1. From BL’s website: The items that are being moved will be unavailable to Readers while they are prepared, moved and ingested into the new storage facility. Ingested? Scarier than I thought…

  2. So the image captioned ‘Will they rise up against us?’ isn’t actually part of the deal? Shame.

    It is indeed a quite terrifying thought, I had no idea a place like this existed! Imagine if you were in there alone and all the lights went out… *shudder*

    Nice to go day-tripping though? The north is like another country.

    • No, but it was pretty much the first thing I thought when they opened the door to the ‘viewing platform’. The room is just not built for humans, it’s very scary.

      It was quite nice, yes. 4-hour journey not so bad in the end, although I didn’t have a good book as it turned out, but it was lovely and sunny and I felt as though I was having a little holiday. I think I’d like to move up North.

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