Visiting the Mansueto

Mansueto and Regenstein
Grand Reading Room with Regenstein Library in the background

I’m a huge fan of libraries. I am very proud of the community impact of the Duluth Pubic Library where I serve on the board, well-served by the library at our College which supports a range of academic ventures with a modest budget, and always amazed at the generosity of inter-library loan, which makes almost any volume available to me. So I have been eager to take the tour of the new Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago. Last week, I finally had the chance to visit.

It is an amazing library. The UChicago collection is astronomical – 10 million volumes — and the faculty did not want to let any of it get stored at a distance. Yet the Regenstein Library — newly built when I was a student in the 1980s — was overflowing. The new library breaks many of the cherished traditions of libraries:

the books are not stored by subject matter; the user cannot browse the books on the shelf. It is truly an excellent example of how libraries can deal with the tremendous amount of material available while remaining true to that most traditional of formats, a printed book.

The Mansueto as built is unique. Architects proposed a variety of designs. All but one filled the available green space with a huge building. One firm designed a vast underground repository with a Grand Reading Room at ground level, a 21st century version of the cathedrals of scholarship like the reading room at the New York Public Library. That’s the version the University decided to build.

The underground repository consists of hundreds, probably thousands, of metal boxes, each of which holds quite a few books organized by size. Each has a barcode that can quickly be read. The books are stored at 60 degrees and 30% humidity, an impossibility if people also had to work in that environment. Giant robotic pickers zoom up and down the aisles — only wide enough for the robots but 5 stories tall — to choose the correct bin and deliver it to the surface. There, student workers quickly locate the book by bar code. The average wait from the time a user makes a request until the book is handed over is 7 minutes, with most taking less than 5.

The Grand Reading Room is just that: grand, in the best sense of the word. Up to 180 people can work there. The University provides computers at some tables, but all of them have electrical and ethernet outlets in addition to the wifi available throughout. Larger tables around the perimeter can be used for working with large documents. The entire reading room is designated as a Quiet Reading Area — and it was surprisingly silent even with dozens of students studying for final exams the day I visited.

I still prefer to browse the shelves — I am as likely to go away with the book beside the one I sought. I wondered, too, what would happen to the books in case of explosion or earthquake that shook up the millions of volumes. But — assuming the computer files are well-backed-up — robots would probably be able to sort them more quickly than humans could reshelve the millions of volumes.

It really is a new world!

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