Drones, Robots, and Cloud Give Libraries a High-Tech Makeover

COVID-19 closed most libraries, but it didn’t stop librarians from serving a content-hungry public. In a book-friendly pivot, online services, automated messaging, and curbside pickups are keeping all types of printed materials steadily flowing in and out of libraries. When we can return to the library, IoT, RFID, drones, and robots may have bigger roles in tracking, shelving, and distributing popular library materials.  


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Image credit: Sandile Ndlovu

For many book lovers, reading was—and is—their coping mechanism during stressful COVID-19 days. When the US government shut down the more than 16,000 public libraries, patrons everywhere wondered how they would get their reading fix. Librarians, a highly resourceful breed, wasted no time turning to technology to reimage their service offerings. In short order, they got back in the business of providing books, magazines, CDs, and videos, plus hosting online events.

These user-friendly, online services aren’t going away, and local governments throughout the US are looking for more ways to better serve their residents. Many will need support from integrators. Some visionaries are replacing traditional book stacks with robots, looking at drones for delivery to homebound residents, and adding RFID for faster location and tracking of materials.


Integrated Online Library Systems Adapt to a Quarantined World

When COVID-19 hit, the staff at Somerset County Library System in New Jersey had to quickly get up and running remotely on The Library Corporation’s (TLC) Carl Connect Integrated Library System. After creating a set of safety protocols, they launched a new contactless system for library materials’ pickup and drop off. Patrons transitioned from onsite checkout to checking out items and making appointments for 10-minute curbside pickup windows through a Web or mobile interface. 

The library also updated its website to focus more on patrons’ new digital life. They offered instructions about how to get digital ecards, register for online classes, and download streaming videos.

In parallel, they addressed rules that didn’t make pandemic sense. They updated library policies around fines and holds for the digital collections. Making these updates was not overwhelming or time consuming. With TLC’s cloud-based library systems, the staff and consultants revamped the website, workflow, and processes in an incredibly short time frame.

Robots Assist Library Patrons with Fun, Friendly Help

While some may perceive libraries as antiquated relics that don’t embrace technology, that perception is incredibly wrong. A library at the University of Chicago, for example, has relied on an automated system with robotic arms for years.

Hidden underground beneath the glass dome of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, robots have been finding and putting away books since 2018. The university was one of the first to use robotics in its highly automated book storage and retrieval system, which has the familiar look of an Amazon warehouse. The million-plus volumes of the library’s print collection are tagged with barcodes and stored in bins three stories high. When a patron emails a request to the library, the robotic system locates, retrieves, and sends the material to the pickup area.   

graphic image showing digital process to request books at University of Chicago library

Image credit: Graham Murdoch

In other libraries, robots are greeting visitors and answering directional questions. The University of Pretoria Library in South Africa has a library assistant named Libby that met and helped guests prior to the pandemic. Libby can answer thousands of questions, such as where to find the restrooms and different library services. Libby, and other robots like her, can also help with simple requests, provide basic reference services, and even take a turn at reading during children’s story hours. These types of helpful robots are sure to find their way into more libraries in the future.

Drones Give Book Drop a New Meaning

In another high-tech effort, a librarian is sending books to her students by drones. A librarian with the Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia worked with her superintendent to deliver books by Wing, a drone service from Alphabet. Students request books using an online form, the librarian packs the books up in special delivery boxes and drops them off at Wing, which flies them over and drops them off in the student’s front yard.  

Looking to the near future, drones could also help deliver books to the homebound and others who are unable to visit a library.

Some tech lovers may shake their heads thinking that all printed material will move online and libraries will become a thing of the past in a smart city. Those naysayers don’t realize that libraries are a cultural center of any city. Libraries are more than lending books, they host events, provide educational services and job assistance, and so much more. These known and loved public spaces are ready recipients to fresh ideas and new technologies that will better serve a smart city’s residents.  

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