November 24, 2009 / 6:34 PM / 10 years ago

High tech storage to preserve British Library books

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The British Library is re-housing part of its collection in a new facility that will hand responsibility for the storage and retrieval of seven million items to a robotic crane rather than a librarian.

The 30-million pound climate-controlled center in the northern English town of Boston Spa will house the equivalent of 262 km (162.8 miles) of shelving in the type of high-density warehousing more often used by retailers than libraries.

Steve Morris, the library’s director of finance and corporate services, said books would be stored in containers stacked according to an algorithm that calculates demand for the titles.

“The cranes actually are the only part of the organization now that will know where this material has been put,” Morris said in an interview with Reuters TV.

“Over time, as the material is accessed the system will remember which books are being looked at the most and it will keep that material at the front of the building so it’s easily retrieved.”

Books that are hardly ever requested will eventually end up at the back of the building.

The new technology will mean only eight people are needed to access the collection stored at the center.

“We used to walk around the floors and retrieve a book by hand whereas with this, once it’s in there all we do is zap a button really and it comes to us,” Library worker Alison Stephenson said.

Stephenson and her colleagues are checking material arriving from London as it is placed into containers and dispatched by the automated collection robots into the depths of the building.

“If you put a book in the wrong box in this building, then effectively you will never find it,” Morris said.

The center, which will be completed by summer 2011, complements the British Library’s storage facilities and reading rooms in St Pancras, London, where books will be available 48 hours after being requested from Boston Spa.

The facility has been built to specific environmental standards to preserve the books and documents.

“We will have an environment of about 14.8 parts oxygen, which means nothing burns,” he said. “The content is entirely protected from fire without any sprinklers.”

Although the British Library was preserving digitized content, Morris said it was cheaper to retain information in its original form.

“The scale of the collection is such that to digitize that material is the work of generations, and hugely costly,” he said.

Many of the items could be termed very-narrow interest, but Morris said their future value was incalculable.

“We can’t judge on behalf of future generations what material is valuable and what is not,” he said.

For example, he said researchers into swine flu were consulting the Library’s collection of scientific journals from the beginning of the century because they had information about the flu pandemic after World War One.

“Another example is the logs from the East India Company’s ships, sailing all the oceans of the earth in the 17th, 18th century, recording the weather conditions,” he said.

“In the context of current concerns around global warming that is a magnificent database of information.”

Reporting by Matt Cowan, Writing by Paul Sandle, editing by Paul Casciato

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