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Library Card Catalog, R.I.P.
by Katie Dean

David Tan  
Books are housed in a massive file-storing structure.
2:00 a.m. Mar. 27, 2001 PST
ROHNERT PARK, California -- Browsing through the shelves is one of the great joys of visiting the library. But when the shelves get too tall and threaten to take away precious study space, books are relegated to warehouses, sold, given away, or worse -- retired to the circular file.

When Sonoma State University opened its new library -- the Jean & Charles Schulz Information Center -- last fall, it solved that problem with a system of metal storage boxes and a fast-moving computerized crane that make up the Automated Retrieval System.




  Today's Headlines
12:30 p.m. Apr. 2, 2001 PDT
Original Story

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The ARS is hidden away in the heart of the center and it possesses what one might call "a dirty secret" in the realm of libraries: The storage system is completely random.

The hodgepodge of materials are scattered in boxes on metal racks about 45 feet high. Currently, the system stores about 230,000 little-used periodicals and obscure books, about 25 percent of the school's total collection.

Even more startling is claims from librarians -- champions of the Dewey Decimal System -- that randomness is what makes the system so effective.

"That part sort of troubles people," said Barbara Butler, interim dean of the library. But "that's what makes it a fast turnaround both for pulling something out and putting something back. It doesn't have to go to a special place."

The online catalog system, called Snoopy, is Web-based, so students can order a book from anywhere and the machine will retrieve their chosen book. For example, a search for "trees" in the Snoopy database returns this book title, which is stored in the ARS: Trees and Shrubs of Mariana, Caroline, and Marshall Islands.

If a student selects this book, computers in the ARS room are alerted.

A skinny yellow crane barrels down the track and rolls by what looks like a gigantic filing cabinet. It stops at the appropriate box, and a robotic arm pulls the bin out of the metal rack. The crane slides to the front, slamming to a halt in front of the librarian, and lowers the box to the workstation.

The bins are separated into six sections, with each section holding between 10 and 25 books. A computer has stored the location of each book by section. The librarian retrieves the information, then manually picks up the book.

Boxes remain at the workstation, and when a different book is returned, it is re-scanned and placed into that open box.

It's hard to believe that such a sophisticated system is so, well, random. But there they are, Tolstoy next to Einstein next to Hemingway. That's a far cry from alphabetical order.

"It makes it far more efficient," said Greg Tichava, the ARS/Stacks Supervisor at the library. "If it's scanned and it's in the ARS, there's no question where it is."

But that's not all. The book still has to find its way to the circulation desk.

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These pages copied for non commercial use as an archive of content covered on wired. Please see original. Copyright referenced from their site: Copyright © 2001 Wired Digital Inc., a Lycos Network site. All rights reserved.