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Queens Chronicle

Book baggage claim hits Long Island City

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Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2010 12:00 am

While libraries are facing severe budget cuts, on Thursday in Long Island City, The New York Public library unveiled the latest addition to its staff — a $23 million automated book sorter.

“Our intention was to create the best suite of spaces in America for library preservation laboratories,” said Paul LeClerc president of the library.

A 145, 000-square-foot facility on Thomson Avenue houses the division of collections and circulation operations, digital imaging, a manuscripts and an archives processing area and the state of the art book sorter.

“My job was so boring and mundane,” said Salvatore Magaddino, the assistant director of logistics at the library. “It was strenuous and sometimes it was difficult to sort all the books by hand.”

The machine, which is believed to be the largest of its kind, has made Magaddino’s job more exciting and easier. It is designed to reduce a customer’s waiting time for a book while allowing staff members to provide better service.

In the past, it took the library months to sort the books by hand. “This LIC branch is the central [sorting] hub. When we had different buildings it was tough to move the materials back and forth,” Magaddino said.

Now, the new device sorts up to 7,500 items per hour, doubling the capacity of materials the library can process daily.

The automated system consists of a web of cables that are hidden under a rotating conveyor belt. The 238-foot long machine, sits in a special room with 132 shoot locations. A staff member places each book face down on one side of the belt; the book then passes under a laser scanner, which registers the bar code into the library’s central computer database.

The system determines where the book is to be delivered and deposits it into one of the shoots. Library staff then load books into trucks assigned for delivery to various locations. The process is similar to an airport’s baggage carousel, but here it is books that are being transported and sorted.

The four-level facility houses 260 staff members. “There are 14 members that operate this machine and it sorts up to 125 books per minute,” Magaddino said, reciting the impressive stats of the new behemoth. “Before we did all this by hand.”

Three years ago, Magaddino voiced his concerns at a meeting about the problem of recruiting sorters as customer demands for books increased. A manager who was present directed him to a YouTube video of a less impressive smaller sorter in Seattle. Magaddino then pitched the idea and highlighted the need for this technology at the library and eventually, he got his wish.

The sorter operates in a recently renovated basement in a borough in which the NYPL has no libraries. The Queens Library runs independently from the NYPL and sorts all its books in Jamaica.

The total cost for the sorter and rennovations is estimated at around $50 million. According to LeClerc, public and private funding paid for the project. Money was allocated by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the New York City Council.

“We're committed to making investments in our libraries to help them embrace new technologies,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “The art of preserving, storing and showcasing library materials has come a long way in a short time.”

Back in the basement, Magaddino no longer has to worry about finding extra hands to help in the sorting process, instead his automated co-worker has reduced his work by at least a day.

“I know that budgets are shrinking everywhere but I am sure this system is going to catch on to other libraries in a matter of time,” Magaddino said.

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