RFID Robots Invade Library

In a former life, I worked as a librarian. So, an article about the use of radio frequency ID (RFID) chips at Chicago State University’s library, in the January, 2007 issue of Wired Magazine, caught my eye. At this particular library, students have been banned from the stacks, because robots now are installed to quickly retrieve any item that is desired.

Here’s how it works: every item in the library (books, CDs, DVDs) is tagged with an RFID chip. This allows “tall, forklift-style machines that run on tracks” (the robots) to put away and retrieve materials in a three-story-high storage facility.

“The computer knows where everything is and can hustle the correct bin to the circulation desk for checkout,” Wired explained in its report.

I am both fascinated and repulsed by such a system. From the standpoint of librarians, I can see the appeal. No more lost items caused by well-meaning but unhelpful library users who insist on putting books back on the shelf—in the wrong place.

From the standpoint of the library user, however, the invasion of the RFID robots seems a sad turn of events indeed. No more browsing through the shelves of books, looking through each one before making your selection? The loss of browsing, to me, would make a visit to the library very hollow indeed.

Maybe that’s the point, though—no-one has time anymore to visit the library and spend time choosing just the right book. I admit that I rarely indulge in the activity myself anymore. Most of the time, it’s more convenient simply to place whatever items I want on reserve, and stop by the library on my way home from work to pick them up. If my library were equipped with a system like the one in Chicago, I could simply stop by the circulation desk without even pre-ordering books and have five items delivered to me in the span of 2 ½ minutes.

Perhaps I’m dating myself (youngish though I am) with a nostalgia for a simpler time when libraries were a hands-on affair and the endless battle between order and disorder that took place within those walls made any such facility an organic and fascinating place to hang out.

Then again, you have to admit there is a certain ring to “RFID library robots.” Might make a good name for a rock band…

What do you think—are automated retrieval systems a good thing for libraries? Or are we losing something in the process of wanting to do everything faster, better, and more efficiently?

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