A great big store

Libraries are not all about storage these days, but for some libraries storage is still a key issue. The BLDSC is a case in point.

If you have ever asked your library to get you something that they didn´t have in stock then it’s likely that you have had the benefit of the services of the BLDSC (British Library Document Supply Service). It is a part of the British Library and is the UK’s ‘lender of last resort’ or, to put it more positively, the holder of a vast collection of books and journals that backs up the holdings of our university and specialist libraries. Much of what they hold is scientific material so the BLDSC is an important part of information provision to UK research scientists.

Located at Boston Spa, near Wetherby in Yorkshire, the BLDSC is more like a factory than a library. There are no serenely peaceful galleried spaces full of brainy scholars, just storage, storage and more storage, plus efficient mechanisms for retrieving volumes from the stores, and teams of people processing requests and scanning documents. I visited BLDSC many years ago, and I remember they proudly showed us their latest vast storage hangar. Earlier this month I was there again marvelling at their latest wonder, the poetically named ASB (Additional Storage Building), and seeing the first public demonstration of their new requesting system.

The ASB is awesome. It is a high-density warehouse, totally automated. The storage area is 23m high, with 262 km linear storage. It isn’t just rows of shelves on a large scale, it is really something else. From our vantage point in the visitors’ gallery I took some rather inadequate photos (see below) and you can see some more photos of it on the BL website. I didn´t get to see it from the ground level but this picture gives a good impression of the height. Someone more familiar with scifi movies than I am commented that it looked like the Matrix.

The ASB holds books, journals, CDs and newspapers, all contained in crates of standard sizes. What struck me on entering was the smell. This is a totally 21st-century high-tech automated storage facility, and what does it smell of? Dusty old libraries! That smell you always find in library stores and archives is there too.

The material held in the ASB has been moved there from three British Library storage sites in London (Woolwich, Micawber St and Colindale). The process for retrieving items is impressive. Vertical poles span from the floor to the ceiling and they move rapidly through the space to retrieve a particular crate, dropping it onto a conveyor roller which then takes it to another area where human operators retrieve the particular item from the crate.

Part of the ASB's retrieval mechanism.

The video on this page gives some idea, or you can view a simulation. A database of all the items in the store underpins the whole retrieval process.

After seeing the wonders of the ASB we (that is, me and a group of fellow librarians) were then treated to a preview of the BLDSC’s latest online requesting system. I won’t bore you with that, except to say that they have totally overhauled their back-office request processing and made it much easier for people to apply and track progress online. I think the idea is to help the BLDSC to reach out to parts that other libraries don’t reach – the SMEs and ventures that can’t justify in-house library services. I think it will be an improvement for all users of the service though.

What fascinates me about the whole BLDSC is the way that this world-class service, which delivers digital information to all corners of the globe, rests on mechanical and human processes which, frankly, look a bit clunky. On reflection, it is reassuring that the service is not awash with flashy furnishings and glossy IT. It is built to work and to do a job at the best possible price, and that is just what it does. I present the pictures below, therefore, in a spirit of affection and respect.

Old terminal

When was the last time you saw a terminal like this?

The flashing blue light

When an urgent request comes through this blue light comes on.

This is the older storage area, looking more like regular library shelving.

Conveyor belts move stock around

It is all functional rather than beautiful.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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3 Responses to A great big store

  1. Frank says:

    There’s some more high-tech library storage at the University of Chicago. Wired reports that the new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library is:

    a mammoth sunlit elliptical dome fashioned from glass and steel, [which] has no books, aisles or shelves to peruse. Instead it sits on top of a 50-foot-deep storage vault which archives the library’s millions of volumes…Up on ground level (from anywhere on campus), a student can browse the library’s archive using an online catalogue website. They can then request the book and pop off towards the Mansueto Library [where the book will be] ready to pick up.

  2. ricardipus says:

    I thought I’d commented on this before, but apparently not…

    Thanks for the close-up view of this amazing system. I particularly like the blue “urgent request” light.

    I’m not showing it to my boss though. I don’t need one of those lights installed in my office. 😉

  3. Frank says:

    Richard – yes, that was my favourite part too! Re. installing in your office, I just have an email filter rule that sounds a klaxon whenever an email from my boss arrives!

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