Delegating library inventory to RFID robots

Speakers: Juja Chakarova, Johannes Trabert

Modern librarians are called to become information and knowledge managers, however they are also requested to deal with a lot of routine tasks like labeling, shelving and making inventory of the collection, to name a few. Shouldn’t we delegate these repetitive assignments to robots and save our time for more important missions?

Michael Gorman formulated in 1987 the so called ‘drift-down theory’ of the organization of tasks within the library. It aphoristically says that:

- No professional should do a task which can be performed by a paraprofessional;
- No paraprofessional should do a task which can be performed by a clerical staff ;
- No human being should do a task which can be performed by a machine.

The drift-down theory calls for rationalization by reconsidering all library tasks in the light of their purpose and effectiveness. Gorman advises, that any task should be performed at the lowest possible level at which it can be accomplished. Further, in the light of that theory it requires the elimination of ‘needless drudgery’ as per the expression of Gorman. During the last forty years the process of library automation made us witnessing the implementation of the third point in Gorman’s theory up to a certain extent. Machines maintain and sort our catalogue, perform the loans and provide reference.

With the exponential development of information technology and telecommunications since the beginning of the 21st century, are we about to witness some new trends in this regard to make sure that really NO human being should do a task which can be done by a machine?
With the introduction of RFID (radio frequency identification) systems in our libraries, we no longer need to be present when our users borrow materials. The Library can operate 24/7 and the librarians can do other things than signing returned books in the patron’s card. What shall be our next step?

With the huge print collections and the open access shelves, libraries are requested to regularly do a full or partial inventory. The purpose of the inventory is to identify which items are missing, so that they can be replaced, bought anew, before becoming out-of-print or not available at all. The inventory is an exercise that can take many months and involves all library staff and assistants. It is mostly done manually, even when a handheld RFID scanner is used. Our research on the use of RFID robots for inventory purposes showed two very interesting solutions, offered by MetraLabs (Germany) and SenserBot (Singapore).

SenserBot offers AuRoSS (autonomous robotic shelf scanning system), developed by A*Star. The robot is designed to scan HF RFID tags and can easily navigate even alongside curved shelves. The robot has been specifically designed for libraries and can detect misplaced books. AuRoSs is in a test phase, currently conducted at the National Library of Singapore. The results of it will be shared during the presentation.
Metralabs offers the TORY robot, designed to work with UHF RFID tags. TORY has so far been used mainly in big department stores to scan the stock of clothes and so far MetraLabs was not aware that libraries might also need it. TORY works in the night, but is also certified as being harmless for people. At the Max Planck Institute (MPI) Luxembourg Library TORY made the full inventory of an area of 500 m2 with 34,800 items for just one hour! The results of the test will be shared via the presentation.