Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Do BookBots Dream of Virtual Browse?

As I talk with librarians about the future of local print collections, one question surfaces with some regularity: what's the best or boldest strategy you've seen? While regional shared print projects such as the Michigan Shared Print Initiative (MI-SPI), the Maine Shared Collection Strategy provide one type of solution, individual library responses can also prove quite inspiring. One such project stands out in my mind: North Carolina State University's BookBot and Virtual Browse.

Prompted by a renovation of its main library, NC State fundamentally rethought its use of space and the role of its print collections. The Library's new vision conceived the renovated Hunt Library as "a major competitive advantage for the university." Further, the planners sought "the ability for our students, faculty, and partners to immerse themselves in interactive computing, multi-media creation, and large-scale visualization" -- tasks not immediately associated with print collections. NCSU also sought to double its seating capacity for users.

Still, the NCSU Libraries remain the custodian of a multi-million volume collection of print materials, and in their planning embraced that role in an eminently practical way.

A BookBot--a robotically-served high-density, climate-controlled repository--was incorporated into the design. With a capacity of 2 million volumes, the BookBot enabled NCSU to reduce the space allocated to print collections without reducing collection size. They retained a physically browsable collection of about 40,000 volumes, moving everything else to the BookBot.

NCSU is certainly not the first library to adopt this approach. Cal State Northridge holds the distinction of implementing the first robotically-served space integrated with its library, back in 1992. Other libraries, including UNLV, University of Utah, Colgate, and Valparaiso, have incorporated Automated Storage & Retrieval Systems (ASRS) with good results. The key is rapid delivery of items in the BookBot; NCSU's standard is 5 minutes from the user submitting a request.

Virtual Browse - Serendipity Restored!

But NCSU has raised the game to a new level by incorporating Virtual Browse capability. This addresses one of the major objections to high-density storage, regardless of whether it's remote or attached to the library: the inability to scan scan the surrounding material on the shelves. Virtual Browse provides an excellent alternative: a graphical interface that uses cover scans, tables of contents, and bibliographic records to their fullest potential.

Take a look at this short video: Virtual Browse is demonstrated around the 1:40 mark. NCSU's combination of high-density storage, rapid retrieval, and virtual browse set a new standard for interacting with increasingly low-use print collections.

Yes, it's expensive and probably not for every library. But as regional shared print service centers become more common, development costs can be amortized over a group of libraries and users provided with a window into offsite collections as well as onsite collections. It's an investment that applies the full power of current discovery tools while allowing print collections to be managed more efficiently and in a smaller footprint.