IALL 2018 Preconference Workshop on Library Innovation & Robot Usage

By Mike McArthur

TORY and Presenters

TORY, Ms. Juja Chakarova, and Dr. Johannes Travert at the IALL Preconference Workshop on Library Innovation & Robot Usage.

The 2018 IALL Annual Course kicked-off its pre-conference workshop at the Max Planck Institute for Procedural Law (MPI) in Luxembourg on Sept. 30th. The presenters included Ms. Juja Chakarova, the Head of the Library at MPI, robot designer Dr. Johannes Trabert of MetraLabs GmbH, and TORY, the inventory control robot previously used at the MPI library.

To frame the presentation, Ms. Chakarova began by explaining that the discussion would be limited to innovations that were relevant to libraries, specifically those dealing with text, letters, and languages while largely excluding those related to media, art, and other fields. She then continued by describing some of the tools that have impacted libraries throughout Europe, from the development of the typewriter in the late 1800s, to the 1960s and the introduction of automation provided by the PDP-11 line of “mini-computers.” Pointing to the Apollo 11 experiments, she contrasted the capacities of computing at the time where NASA computers ran at 40 kHz and utilized 64 kB of memory. A typical laptop today is hundreds of times more powerful, running at 2.6 Ghz and using multiple GB of memory. It isn’t a stretch to say that the entire computing power of the Apollo mission is eclipsed by a simple Google search.

After some more descriptions of technological advancement related to Moore’s Law and the disruptive influence brought by “increasingly capable machines” in Richard Susskind’s book “The Future of Professions,” Ms. Chakarova finished by bringing it back to innovation as it relates to librarians. Mentioning how card catalogs and loan cards once revolutionized the user experience, she shared that her library had directly tackled their inventory issues through the use of an innovative robot.

Dr. Trabert stepped forward to explain. Having previously worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, he had returned to Germany to work for a company that develops mobile service robots, mostly to do simple tasks such as to guide customers to products in a store. His company worked with the MPI library to design a robot that would automate their inventory control functions using RFID, which has replaced the need for visual, camera-based functions. The goal, he said, was to free the librarians for work they were more suited for, especially interaction with patrons.

The robot that MPI had used for setting up its inventory control is named TORY. Using a set of programs, maps, and sensors, TORY is capable of autonomous movement around the library even when patrons are present, which can sometimes be tricky as standard safety features must be robust enough to let it operate around untrained people. Dr. Trabert had graciously brought TORY back to the library for a live demonstration. A table with numerous books had been set up on a card table at the front of the room and TORY quickly rounded the table while a list of titles and a tile count streamed onto the projector screen.

At this point the audience peppered the presenters with questions:

  • Does it work with compact shelving? Answer: It is surprisingly mobile, but can’t turn the crank for you…)
  • What do students do to TORY? Answer: We have a very responsible patron base so no hats, stickers, or other pranks.
  • How much do these cost? Answer: This model is about 30,000 euros and there is no leasing model yet.
  • What about a warranty? Answer: There are of course many maintenance packages.
  • What happens if there is an error? Answer: Robots like TORY have an emergency signal they send out when their sensors are blocked.

We also discovered that to process the 35,000 volumes in the collection, a few students were hired to place RFID strips in each book, which was completed over the course of two months.

Ms. Chakarova finished up by explaining that in countries like Japan where the population is more inclined to trust robots, they are being used in a wide variety of capacities. And while there is a general fear that automation will displace our jobs, an informal survey of the audience found that almost 90% were not afraid. This wrapped-up the pre-conference workshop.

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