Japan, more than most places, enjoys a cultural fascination, and even comfort, with robots. The home of Astroboy and Mobile Suit Gundam is a fertile place for both imagination and innovation in robotics (try this YouTube video at home for an anime take on the subject: hostile work environment alert!). In Tsukuba, there is a new robot zone, wherein one can, I gather, soon expect to encounter independently roaming robots of an experimental nature [more on this intitiative here]. In most places, I'd be alarmed, but in a country where the buildings don't fall down in 9.0 earthquakes, and civility is a national pasttime, I'm not so worried about Schwarzeneggerish robotic perturbations. 2001: a Space Odyssey could never have been conceived here -- robots would never be so presumptuous as to address their minders by their given names!
My experience with library robotics goes back to my days as a graduate school at The Ohio State University. A new health sciences library opened at about the same time as I arrived in 1971 to begin my doctoral studies in pharmacology. The core of the building (literally) was a large mechanical contraption that moved boxes of books (roughly the size of today's recycling bins) along conveyors in response to a 'get' request. For patrons, initiating that request required looking up the citation in a catalog (cards, as I recall), writing a 12 digit number on a slip of paper, giving it to a staff member who would then re-key said number, initiating the retrieval of one of the boxes that, theoretically, would have the volume of interest. Sometimes it did.
Two opportunities for transcription errors in a long number so far, assuming the the machine was working (often it was not). If a book was 'reshelved' incorrectly -- in a box other than its own -- it was lost forever. Well, not forever... only until the RandTriever, some years later, was dismantled. I admit to a small measure of hyperbole here, but not much. Short of a system-wide inventory, there was no way to reconnect an errant book to its home. Barcoding was just entering the grocery marketplace at this time, so this critical tool was unavailable to assist in book handling.
My first and last experience in this building as a graduate student involved two hours, a request for about 10 references, 2 of which were satisfied. Facing an uprising, the College of Pharmacy agreed to allow graduate students to request materials via interlibrary loan for items not available in our own small, but effective, library. If memory serves, the RandTriever was the 4th installation of its kind in the States. As far as I know, it was the last, but that may be my own wishful surmise. Anyone know of others?
During my stay in Japan I have visited two libraries with automated stacks: the Kansai Kan branch of the National Diet Library has one (a big one!), and the Hokkaido University Library is loading their new one as part of their soon-to-open library rennovation. There are more than 100 such installations in Japan, with four hardware vendors. Having seen two in action, they are fast and quiet, but they don't look radically different than the mechanical beast I came to loathe 40 years ago. The differences, in fact, are large indeed. These work. Each box and book has a barcode identifier, and the binding between the two is dynamic. The system maintains the list, and one of the consequences of this is that the collection sorts itself such that more commonly used materials migrate to boxes nearer the 'front.' That translates to shorter transaction times (probably insignificant) and lower energy costs over time.
Bibliophiles everywhere love to browse stacks, and this aspect of library patronage is lost, but it is disappearing as the result of the migration towards digital content as well. And the premium on space in a country as dense as Japan trumps a lot of other factors.
I have no information about the overall reliability of the current technology, but I have 40 Honda-years under my belt, and 38 of them were virtually trouble free. And they don't teach teenagers how to drive (or go on dates) with the book robots. At least, not directly.
Back in Columbus, they eventually extracted the beast from the heart of the building, rebuilt the library, and named it after the 'visionary' who oversaw adoption of this immature technology. I bet no one capitalized the retirement costs in the initial cost estimates, but at least they eventually found all those lost books.
New sign in the center of Tsukuba warning of possible robotic encounters. They don't call it Tsukuba Science City for nothing!