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What's New: The Hidden Treasure of the AS/RS

eNews Edition: Spring 2021

Contributed by Elizabeth Altman

Library services have persisted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, thanks to our robust electronic resources and Books by Mail service. But suspension of some services during a Winter Campus Closure gave us the opportunity to complete a critical upgrade project for the Library’s Automated Storage and Retrieval System (AS/RS).

bottom floor of the CSUN University Library AS/RS
Crane on Aisle 5 with New Vertical & Horizontal Motor, Resistors, and Optical Modem

The AS/RS, an electronic bin-based storage and retrieval system, was installed in the Library as part of a building expansion in 1989. First of its kind, the AS/RS occupies a 3-story section of the Library’s east wing, and contains 13,260 steel bins moved around 6 aisles by computer-driven warehouse-style cranes.

The system was built with a plan to store less-frequently checked-out items and free up space in the Library’s open book stacks for newer, more frequently checked-out items. It is still used that way: if a student needs Early Islamic pottery: Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia by Arthur Lane (1947), an item stored in the AS/RS, they just need to search the title in OneSearch, log in and request it. The request is automatically passed to the AS/RS software and the book is delivered to an area behind the Guest Services desk, where library personnel check out the book and hold it for pickup.

But more than books are stored in AS/RS: a substantial number of the 800,000 items from the main collection are periodicals frequently requested by patrons at other libraries through InterLibrary Loan. Additionally, 30,000 valuable Special Collections & Archives items are kept in dedicated bins.

The AS/RS upgrade project was undertaken to replace original equipment, much of which was 30 years old. The older hardware and software were error-prone and difficult to troubleshoot, causing daily service shutdowns. Replacement parts were getting harder and harder to find: motors that might have cost $2000 to replace in 1995 were unavailable and would have cost $20,000 to custom build. Some of this equipment had been upgraded in two previous projects, but the absence of safety features like ladders and crossover walks, optional in the original $2 million installation, were also a significant issue. “The vendor hasn’t been able to perform a full routine maintenance service for many years because of safety concerns,” notes Justin Kovalcik, Director of Library Information Technology.

The upgrade proceeded thanks to $1 million funding from the Chancellor’s Office, a request initiated by Ken Rosenthal, CSUN Associate Vice President of Facilities Development & Operations. Legacy motors in 3 aisles were replaced; an older crane positioning system was replaced with state-of-the-art optical modems; and the long-awaited safety equipment was added. Proceeding with the project during the library’s closure had both advantages and disadvantages. Since book checkout was suspended altogether during a COVID-19 surge in December and January, the crew could work through the days as needed, rather than only at night. But the “hot work” — that is, welding — required that the building’s fire prevention system be temporarily shut down several times. Because of reduced on-campus staffing it was difficult to quickly schedule facilities personnel to disable the system. Nevertheless, work was completed in February 2021.

The University Library’s AS/RS now stands fit to support the opportunities that lie ahead. Library collections continue to grow, but the proportion of electronic journals and books steadily increases. Instead of freeing up shelf space, moving items into the AS/RS can free up study and collaboration space. Additional benefits of shifting items into automated storage are increased security and access. “Rather than giving students a call number chart and a stack map, we can simply pull their request from the AS/RS and have it waiting for them at Guest Services,” says Mike Villalobos, Guest Services Supervisor. “Students will be able to get on with their research projects more quickly.” Additionally, fewer items will go missing, as the AS/RS keeps close track of them.

The AS/RS is truly a hidden gem of Library. A trend-setting innovation from the first, its utility will support the Library’s future moves to serve the needs of the CSUN Community.