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Library Puts Robots Into Circulation : Technology: If CSUN's computerized robotics system succeeds, it may solve the storage problem for other research centers.

November 06, 1989|SAM ENRIQUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Plans for the new east wing of the Cal State Northridge library at first don't seem very user-friendly, considering that they include shelves too high to reach, bad lighting and a lot of noisy equipment.

Even worse, all of the more than 500,000 books there will be kept in random order.

But what sounds like a librarian's nightmare will work fine for the mechanical staffers of what will be the world's first fully automated library, where robots will roam the aisles replacing and retrieving books, say California State University officials.

They say human hands will be no match for Leviathan II, the $2-million state-of-the-art automation system under construction at the San Fernando Valley campus.

When it's finished, system designers say, Leviathan will hold 12 times the number of books per cubic foot as in a conventional library, allowing librarians to store the least-used of CSUN's million-volume collection in a fraction of the space the books now occupy.

Patrons of the computerized card catalogue will, at the push of a button, command a team of six robots that can find a bin of books and bring it to the checkout counter in about five minutes. A human worker will pull the needed volume.

University officials estimate that the system--named after the biblical whale that "retrieved" Jonah--will save taxpayers millions of dollars in library construction costs and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in operating costs. Leviathan works in the dark, does not litter and requires no heat.

The system is being built as part of an $18.5-million library expansion project to be completed in the fall of 1991.

Because only robots will be allowed to work in the Leviathan section, students and faculty will not be able to browse through the shelves of books, a practice that most agree is a fundamental component of research.

But if it works, Leviathan could be the answer for other university and research libraries faced with growing collections and dwindling space and money. Officials at the Library of Congress and Harvard University say librarians everywhere will be watching the CSUN experiment.

"Libraries can't grow indefinitely," said Michael Shelly, a special projects director at the Library of Congress, which is expected to outgrow its Capitol Hill facility in three years. "The net additions to just our bound volumes are in the neighborhood of 250,000 a year."

Harley P. Holden, curator of the Harvard University archives, said "we'll be taking a close look" at the CSUN system, because if it works, "it could be of great advantage."

But skeptics, who include mostly academicians who prefer retrieving books themselves, say CSUN's Leviathan could just as easily turn out to be a white elephant.

"I don't think the books will come that fast or easy; it just seems that so many things can go wrong--the machinery screws up or the computer goes down," said Leonard Pitt, who has been a CSUN history professor for 27 years. "Maybe that's just the instinct of an old-fashioned professor."

The critics point to a similar mechanical book-storage system that failed badly during an experimental run in the early 1970s. "Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't," said Nola Hartman, a reference librarian at the Monroe County Library in Bloomington, Ind., which built a new library to accommodate the system in 1969.

It later cost taxpayers about $250,000 to remove the system, called a Randtreiver, and convert its area for more conventional use. Besides the frequent mechanical breakdowns--it used giant magnets to lift metal book bins and place them on a conveyor belt--the system was inefficient because it could only be operated by specially trained library workers.

But robotics technology has advanced dramatically since then, say supporters of the CSUN plan.

Advanced computer-controlled retrieval systems are working well at hundreds of industry warehouses, including the world's largest such system, in use for several years at the Ralphs Grocery Co. warehouse in Glendale. There, robots retrieve pallets of groceries weighing hundreds of pounds that are loaded by human hands onto trucks bound for area stores.

Officials at Eaton-Kenway Inc., builders of the Ralphs system, are also building the CSUN system. The firm is eager to prove that Leviathan will work and expects the idea to catch on at other universities.

Thomas Harris, director of library affairs for the Cal State University system and one of two men credited with pushing the idea, said he believes the system will work and eventually be tried at other Cal State campuses. "This promises to be very successful," he said.

The biggest drawback to the automated setup is that researchers will be unable to walk through the aisles. Books stored in the automated system will be available only to the robots, which are modified forklifts with mechanical arms.

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