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This Speedy, Wall-Crawling Conveyor System Will Now Deliver Books at the New York Public Library

Like a robotic, book-carrying train

All aboard the book train (Jonathan Blanc /New York Public Library)
smithsonian.com

There once was a time when finding a book at a library meant digging through card catalogs and searching through the maze-like shelves and sections. While card catalogs have long gone the way of the dinosaur, for years large libraries depended on creaky old conveyor belt systems to bring books buried in the archives to readers who requested them. Now, next week, as part of the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) extensive renovations of its flagship building in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, that classic clunky conveyor will be updated with a sleek modern system that climbs walls at high speeds.

In the past, getting books from the research archives was a serious project: once a researcher put in a request, a librarian would then have to go hunt the book down via the Dewey Decimal system. While the filing system has worked pretty well for more than a century, when you consider that the NYPL’s archives hold about 4 million books, finding a certain volume could be a daunting task (especially if it was misfiled), Tom Mashberg reports for the New York Times. Now, the books are tracked by barcode and will be transported around the library via a modernized conveyor system that is more flexible and much faster than the previous one.

These books aren’t your typical paperback detective novels, history books, or whatever other genres usual library-goers might look for, though: the new system will be transporting old and valuable volumes that are only available to researchers by request, Cory Doctorow writes for Boing Boing.​

The conveyor system includes 24 bright red carts that can carry books through basements and even straight up walls at speeds of up to 75 feet per minute, meaning they move up from the stacks to the reading room in about five minutes. In the past, books had to be placed on an aging belt with built-in bins that slowly trundled around the library, making getting books from the archives a much more laborious process, Mashberg reports.

“What’s nice now is that if a cart were to die, you simply remove the cart, rather than shutting down the whole system,” Gerry Oliva, director of facilities management at the NYPL tells Mashberg.

Thanks to the stylish new system, retrieving tomes from the stacks no longer will slow down the pursuit of knowledge.

Jonathan Blanc /New York Public Library
About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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