Friday, January 15, 2016

Libraries, BookBots and Algorithms

I was listening to NPR this morning, as usual, during my workout. The Pulse did their entire hour on the Rebirth of the Library.  As an avid reader, this was of great interest to me. I love books. I have a crazy collection of books, all down in my basement now since I live in a tiny house with little room for my shelves and shelves of books. But - I don't have the heart to get rid of them, and I do reread them - it's like coming home to old friends.In fact, I just reread over the holidays The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (an annual tradition)...which can only be done correctly with a the actual book that allows me to flip back to the maps a million times.

NPR's many stories related to the library included many things about how libraries of today are still relevant, and how many libraries are changing. I would suggest reading/listening to the different stories. The one that really sparked my mathematical interest however was the one by Peter Crimmins entitled Will BookBots be the revolutions libraries are looking for? I'd never heard of a BookBot, but basically it's a robot that finds books that have been stored in metal bins in large warehouse spaces. The bins are arrayed in a matrix (math!) and a searchable database is used to identify a book and send an algorithm to the BookBot, which then finds and retrieves the bin and brings it to the librarian to get the ordered book. It's a space-saving method of storing thousands of books, allowing for libraries to provide more space for meeting rooms, makerspaces, wifi, social gathering areas, etc. But - what fascinates me is the math.

The BookBot works on algorithms to find the books. The books are not arranged in a typical Dewey-
decimal system, but based on an algorithm. When books are returned, they don't go back to the bin they came from, but go to the closest bin to the crane.  Storage is based on efficiency and proximity, not what we typically associate libraries with - alphabetical, chronological, genre. Fascinating. And clearly an amazing amount of programming and mathematics goes into this system. Naturally, this just made me think about students and the never ending questions "when are we ever going to use this". Here is yet another example of math at work....and in the library!!

I love finding examples of math in places you don't really think of as "mathy". Apparently this BookBot technology comes from similar technology used in the automotive and textile industries. It's fascinating to consider the mathematics needed to store up to two-million books and be able to deliver a single item within five minutes of clicking the online catalog. Yet another example to provide students where math and technology are used on a regular basis.

I found this video of the BookBot in action at the Hunt Library in NCSU. Very cool.