In 2011, Macquarie University’s new library opened. The old library, a stern Brutalist structure built in 1967, had been slowly emptied of books over the first half of 2011 and every visit I made there I found myself crossing through more areas of empty shelves.
It was a melancholy experience to be in a library empty of books. I had a great affection for the old library, like it was a severe older relative. I first encountered it as a child when I came to the university with my grandfather, when he came to pick up watches to repair from the University newsagency. Many years later I got a job at Macquarie myself. As with all places one has experienced over many years, particular elements became important to me, and there were certain details I loved about the library. Some you couldn’t miss, like “Jack” the dinosaur skeleton in the foyer. Others were seasonal, such as the piles of umbrellas that would be abandoned in the entrance on rainy days.
At times when I felt like exploring I would go to the Russian section and look at the books. I don’t speak Russian and my interest in these books was purely aesthetic. If I’d had a bad class I’d visit the Russian section and feel assured of life, and a world, beyond my own. But I’m not able to do this any more, and most of these books I will never see again.
The most talked about feature of the new library is the Automated Storage and Retrieval System, or ASRS. This is the system in which 80% of the collection is now stored, while the remaining 20% is on open shelves in the library. Macquarie is currently the only library in Australia to use this method of book storage, although other libraries around the world use similar systems, and one is being built for the new UTS library.
In the years before the new Macquarie library opened there were many rumours about it, people talking about robots retrieving books and other such futuristic scenarios. I watched curiously the construction site where the new library was being constructed, but had little idea how the automatic retrieval system would work.
Just before the new library opened tours were conducted for university staff. The construction of the building was complete, most of the books had been moved, and soon the library would open. Me and a selection of other staff members from different departments assembled outside the library for the tour.
While it was interesting to find out about the architectural concepts and that the coloured panels on the exterior were meant to reflect the colours of the gum trees native to the area, the part everyone wanted to see was the automatic retrieval system.
The tour leader swiped us through a set of unassuming beige doors into huge silver mausoleum of a room. We stood on a platform looking out over a four storey high stretch of silver boxes, separated from us by a cage-like structure.
I hadn’t known what to expect, and it was a strange feeling looking at all these rows of steel boxes, knowing they were full of books.
A librarian was on hand to show us how the books are retrieved. When a request comes through the robotic crane glides swiftly to the particular box, pulls the box out and delivers it to us at the platform. Then the librarian finds the book inside the box, takes it out, and it goes onto a trolley then out to a collection shelf behind the desk on the other side of the doors.
The books are organised in height order within the boxes, which I didn’t expect. The idea of books of all different topics combined in one box was quite wild to me. Macquarie Uni uses the Library of Congress call numbers, rather than Dewey Decimal system, which is something that confused me the first time I used the library, but I have come to like it better than Dewey. Of course the call numbers are still fundamental to the new storage system. The book’s call number is registered when the book is returned to storage, along with its location: the book goes back where it will fit, rather than having a permanent location in one of the boxes.
There was a lot of technical detail to comprehend, but the thing I, and other people on the tour, wondered, was whether this was a good way to store the collection. While not exactly defensive, the tour leader was quick to fire off the advantages, saying “We’re not throwing away any books” (reference to the scandals at other Sydney universities where skip bins full of books on their way to landfill were discovered), this enables the collection to be kept in one place rather than offsite storage, and makes the library more sustainable, a term that was used a lot during the tour.
The one thing that the ASRS system doesn’t allow is “serendipitous browsing”, or finding unexpected things by physically looking, a process most library users would be familiar with, and I have done much of throughout Biblioburbia. I don’t count my former Russian section indulgences as true serendipitous browsing, however, they were more about inhabiting the same space as the books. I thought of my old and not-often borrowed Russian friends, somewhere in those steel boxes.
As the tour proceeded around the many study areas and configurations of different types of furniture in the new library, I felt glad I’d seen the Automatic Retrieval System. My ideal library is a labyrinth where every book is out on the shelves and one can serendipitously explore, but in the world we must inhabit, it seemed like a pretty good solution. I liked that it is hidden behind a set of double doors so bland that you would probably not even notice them, which open onto an entirely unexpected futuristic scenario.
At the end of the tour the guide asked if we had any questions and I asked what was going to happen to the old library. Looking annoyed, she said that nothing had been planned. It would stay empty until a plan was drawn up for what to do with it. It had been built to last 50 years, she said, as had this new library. In 2061 a group of people will be touring the next new library, whatever that might look like.