You enter the 8,000-square foot elliptical Grand Reading Room of the Joe and Rika Mansueto library, admiring the arched dome of glass panels overhead. You walk past the circulation desk, gaze at the stylish furniture and think: Where the heck are all the books?

Can't quite reach the top shelf? This robotic crane will be more than happy to help

The answer to your question–the books are tightly packed in bins stacked five stories high beneath your feet–is the reason University of Chicago’s new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library is being referred to as the library of the future. An automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) involving huge, computer-activated robotic cranes find the book you want, deliver it to the circulation desk, and eventually return it back underground.

I thought the switch from the Dewey Decimal system was big.

The Mansueto library was recently opened to the faculty and students of the University of Chicago. 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.

Where are all the books? The University of Chicago's futuristic Mansueto library keeps its collection of 3.5 million books underground.

The automated storage and retrieval system is housed along with the books in a five-story chamber located directly beneath the reading room. The books and journal volumes are densely packed into metal bins 18-inches high and 2 by 4 feet. By storing according to size and not content, each bin is able to hold about 100 books. This turns out to be approximately seven times the storage capacity of equivalent book shelf space. About 35,000 bins in all are stacked into racks 50 feet high, bringing Mansueto’s capacity to 3.5 million books–comparable to U Chicago’s main library which holds 4.4 million books.

In addition to making efficient use of space the storage chamber is optimized for book preservation. The sealed bins keep out moisture and a slurry wall surrounding the chamber helps shut out water from the surrounding soil. A drain is carved along the bottom of the slurry wall in the case of seepage.

When a request is typed into one of the reading room computers, one of five robotic cranes will move along a track between the racks. Approximately the same height as the racks, these massive cranes raise or lower themselves to the appropriate bin, retrieve it, and then lift it to a receptacle at the circulation desk. A staff member opens the bin, scans it–all of the books are tracked by barcode–and hands it to the delighted scholar. The high-density automated system is similar to what Ford Motor Co. and General Motors use to manage “just-in-time” retrieval of parts for car manufacturing. Watch the video below to see the awesome inner workings of this "Library of the Future."

Library of the future? Possibly, but with a price tag of $81 million, don’t expect Manseuto clones to begin popping up–or, digging in–at universities overnight. The University claims that the initial high cost of construction is justified by lowered operational costs over the next 25 years. The cooler temperature and limited space in the storage chamber means less energy is needed to keep the books at optimal preservation conditions. In addition, the books will suffer less wear-and-tear from being handled rudely by indignant graduate students who can’t figure out why their projects won’t work.

The $81 million, minus the lowered operational costs were compared to the alternative cost of adding space for an additional 3.5 million books to the university’s main library, estimated at $67 million. Will operational costs make up the money over the next 25 years? I don’t know, $14 million sounds like a lot to make up. I suspect the decision may have been made easier by the Joe–Morningstar, Inc. founder and U Chicago alumm–and Rika Manseuto who donated $25 million to the library.

The library in the back has 4.4 million books, the one in the front has 3.5 million.

The automated storage and retrieval technology invested in Manseuto speaks volumes about the future of libraries. Clearly the University of Chicago, and the Mansuetos feel that the days of books in print are numbered. That’s a no-brainer. Almost certainly the libraries of the future will do away with books altogether, maybe except for some atlases or novelty books like John Audubon’s “The Birds of North America” that are still nice to have around. But efforts like Google Books will eventually drive the book-a-saurus to extinction. The Manseuto itself has its own digitization lab for expanding its digital resources.

The bigger question is, will we do away with libraries altogether?

If you do a quick online search you’ll see that the ‘future of the library’ is actually a pretty energetic discussion taking place right now. An overriding theme is the urge that libraries change and not resist the “Google generation.” Bestselling author and marketing guru, Seth Godin, addresses this question in his blog, “The future of the library.” Like many, Godin predicts the book’s inevitable demise. His library of the future is a collaborative space where people meet over multitudes of web terminals to work together and create their creations. It’s a Manseuto reading room that’s not held up by 3.5 million books.

He also depicts the librarian of the future: a person “with the guts to invite kids in to teach them how to better grades while doing less grunt work. And to teach them how to use a soldering iron or take apart something with no user serviceable parts inside. And even to challenge them to teach classes on their passions, merely because it’s fun. This librarian takes responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.”

Huh?

I love the idea of a place where young and vigorous minds go to discover the universe, where they’re guided by an inspirational sage who draws upon their talents and brings forth the fullest of their as yet untapped potential. It’s a nice picture and, although I don’t think it will become reality, the need for such a polymath librarian probably will. But for those of us who can't afford–what I'd rather call a tutor–will have to do it on our own.

As the amount of digital information grows and our ability to access that information grows, we will need to be smarter in how we search and use that information–or more will become less. However, I don’t think these skills of information efficiency will be passed down by a single individual but rather by trial-and-error.

On your computer. At home.

Am I saying I think libraries will disappear altogether? My best guess is that, as we recognize them today, they will disappear and librarians will disappear with them. But I agree with Godin that we do need a collaborative space, something comfortable and fun, perhaps, to surround the workstations with.

If you agree with me, then you might agree that the libraries of the future are already here–many in number and dotting cities all across the world. Maybe we should stop asking what will the future libraries look like and begin asking: What will the future cyber cafés look like?

[image credits: University of Chicago Library]

images: Mansueto Library
video: Mansueto Library

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.