Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A large hard drive

Utah State University's remodeled science library opened recently (also replacing the old generic library, I understand). I was interested in reading the artificial intelligence journals about learning. I couldn't find any. I looked up Artificial Intelligence in the catalog and found out it was in this thing called BARN. I looked at the map of the library and noticed this BARN thing on several different floors. Oh, I thought. There's stacks or something. So I tried the first floor, but that corner of the building was under construction, so I figured I couldn't get in.

I wandered around on the second floor where the current journals and newspapers are, but I couldn't find it, so I checked the map again. BARN, this big rectangular thing in the corner of the map, it was there. I wandered around stacks and journals and study rooms until I finally got to a study area where a woman was reading something in a chair. There were these windows to my right, and I expected to see more study rooms. I looked and everything clicked.

"There are shelves, Neo... endless shelves." My first impression was "human beings are no longer born... they are grown," as I stared out at a four-story-tall warehouse of books. I was behind a window in a wall, so I didn't have vertigo. While I watched, a robot almost like a little forklift wheeled out into the distance, then raised the entire belt to a distant shelf, a miniature little cube of shelved, bound journals, lifted it out of its rack, then carried it down to an exit point and slid the shelf off the robot arm, presumably to be processed by a human once it reached the outside. I watched entranced for a moment, realization washing over me. If anyone had been watching, I would have been embarrassed. But I just thought it was extremely cool.

A few other thoughts occurred to me. First, it might be harder to read for my thesis if every article request required robotic assistance. I don't know what the policy is about checking out multiple journals at once, but I might have to check a few out, return, check a few more out. Maybe photocopy a lot. I haven't found out yet how inconvenient this will be. Second, this thing is like a large hard drive. It seeks out data (in blocks of large predefined size), moves an arm to retrieve the block, brings it back into a more accessible area where a librarian can give it to you (call it a cache), and then a bit of that block of data is actually used for real work. There are more metaphors too, like system call and address space and seek time. And you are a CPU in this scenario. Third, and connected, I find it interesting that we have followed a computer-science model pretty closely to work with our ink-and-paper information. Even our analog is becoming digital. To quote The Matrix again, "Whoa."

I didn't read the map very carefully, or I would have known that BARN means "Borrower's Automated Retrieval Network".

It's a pretty cool new library, but I have started to wonder if I will need to take trips to Salt Lake City and the University of Utah to carry out this research of mine. Or maybe I will become the Interlibrary Loan's best customer. I just don't know if there are enough books here.

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