Macquarie University Libraries

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.

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10 Comments

Filed under Northern Sydney, The future of libraries, University Libraries

10 responses to “Macquarie University Libraries

  1. I guess this is what the future looks like. Mind literally blown.

  2. The images in this article really a good one to explain the stuff like this. I appreciate this.

  3. f1retree

    I too wonder what will become of being able to serendipitously explore, something I did a lot of when studying for my masters at UWS between 1998 and 2000. I discovered many books and other materials that I wouldn’t normally have seen if I hadn’t been able to explore. I abhor these new roboticized systems for their alienating effect on book searching and knowing.
    I suppose now we will have to go to Kinokuniya and find books that we like and need and then request them from the robots at Sydney Uni and other like libraries.
    How do you know what books are worth looking at when you can’t see them, I’m thinking of books that have a high graphic content, like comics, architecture, fine arts, medicine etc. Does the index show a representation of the book or is it a simple text display. Do the librarians know all the books that you may be interested in?
    A robot library is a library without a heart and soul.

    • f1retree

      Some more thoughts.
      When I’m in Kinokinuya there are crowds of people looking at books, browsing, sitting down leafing through books, the staff is always very supportive and will go out of their way to help find a book and take you to the books you want. The place is always full, lines at the checkout. A good experience all round.
      I suppose one way to cope with the robot system would be to order a sequence of books by catalogue number – 1 to 10 on shelf x – and when they arrive go through them and take what you want and give the rest back. Then repeat this until you’ve gone through all the sections that interest you.

      • Vanessa Berry

        Thanks for your thoughts – and it’s interesting to think of stores like Kinokuniya being used to replace library browsing. I wasn’t sure about the automatic retrieval system at Macquarie to start with, but there are still a lot of books on the shelves to browse, and their rationale is that this way books won’t be discarded (or “weeded”). After using the library I decided the system works well, although you are right, it is alienating to some extent, as more of our searching takes place on a computer catalogue.

      • Hi Vanessa,
        Alienating yeah. Sometimes I would spend a whole day wandering the shelves at UWS, into sections that had little to do with my area of study – digital media, I discovered a huge section of children’s books that I didn’t know existed in the library – I write YA and kids stories now.
        like a lot of people I use the net more now for browsing, looking for and at books and thats become a good experience, I see a lot there that I wouldn’t see in a library simply because a library can’t hope to physically match the scope of the net. But I like the physical aspect of books, paper and typography, the look of large colour illustrations, the surface of the paper.
        BTW I heard about your blog on Fbi radio, great station, excellent blog.

  4. I think the ASRS is ridiculous and pointless. It totally defeats the purpose of browsing through a library, not to mention it infinitely complicates the simple motion of taking a book from the shelf and reading it. The commentator above said it perfectly, “A robot library is a library without a heart and soul.”

    I am a Macquarie Uni alumni and I still peruse the library as it has material relevant to my career. I first visited the new library at the beginning of this year and immediately thought there was something not quite right about it. I didn’t like the feel of it. It didn’t seem like, well, a library. It looked like some yuppies’ hangout place (not that I have anything against the yuppies, but while in a library, I prefer a library feel). Additionally, I hate how one don’t see the books the moment they enter.

    I was also wondering where the heck some of my favourite books went. Now I am dismayed to hear that they are trapped in some mausoleum (as you fittingly called it). I feel so deprived, in more ways than one. Not to mention this complicates things to no end, as I said.

    Btw, I came across your blog while googling the library’s URL. It is actually here where I learned exactly what the ASRS is. I couldn’t understand the description in the uni website. It’s crazy!

    Interesting blog you have here though.

  5. “Additionally, I hate how one don’t see the books the moment they enter.”

    Oops, I meant to say DOESN’T see the books….

    My grammar isn’t that bad, but sometimes I type too fast.

  6. Somebody should build a hack interface for serendipitous browsing …

  7. Pingback: Macquarie University Treasure Map | Mirror Sydney

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