The Competitive Book Sorters Who Spread Knowledge Around New York
November 14, 2018 4:51 PM   Subscribe

Inside an annual contest of brains, brawn, and library logistics. For the sixth time, an elite squad of 12 professional New York sorters—the fleet-fingered men and women who feed books into the machine—will compete with their counterparts from Washington State’s King County Library System to see who can process the most books in an hour.

With minutes to go until game time, the 12 elite sorters have emerged, wearing matching BookOps T-shirts. They march toward the machine as if boarding Apollo 11. The offices upstairs have emptied into the basement, and a wide variety of library personnel fill every available space in the room to cheer the sorters on. “We’re gonna take ‘em down, it’s not gonna be an issue,” says Michael Genao, a 22-year-old sophomore sorter with a linebacker’s build. “I guarantee it,” he adds, as he paces between his teammates, the last few bites of a chocolate donut in his hand.
...
Roman, the distribution manager, assures the spectators that none of this is for show—every book here, and that Black Panther DVD, will be dropped off in Brooklyn later this afternoon. On the other side of the barcode scanner, books are automatically directed neatly off the conveyor belt and into bins labeled for Windsor Terrace, Sheepshead Bay, Ulmer Park. Full bins are carried outside to a truck, the next axon in New York City’s knowledge distribution system. And for all of the knowledge about to be acquired, most readers will never have any idea how it works. Akkim Thomas, a 24-year-old sorter, says he discovered a new favorite book on the belt: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
posted by cynical pinnacle (14 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
LIIIIIIBRRRRRRARRRRRRRYYYYYY KOMBAT!

SORT YOUR BOOKS!

DEWALITY!
posted by Samizdata at 5:00 PM on November 14 [5 favorites]


I would love to see this author write up book cart drill team competitions.
posted by librarylis at 6:02 PM on November 14 [2 favorites]


Prefer the halftime entertainment
posted by sammyo at 6:56 PM on November 14 [1 favorite]


This is really cool.

But I can't help but think all this effort and machinery wouldn't be necessary if we could abolish copyright and subsidize e-readers.

I know, I know, easier said than done. But I already know how it'll sound when we tell the grandkids about how we used to get our movies mailed to us on shiny discs, and the shiny disc player would only play certain shiny discs that were allowed in your region.
posted by AlSweigart at 8:10 PM on November 14 [1 favorite]


That's fantastic. I was wondering if Toronto Public Library has this machine, but I don't think they have barcodes anymore. I mean there are still barcodes on books, but I think those are old books that have the barcodes from before. I don't think new books are barcoded. So what does Toronto use, anyeone know?

Also, I really want to see a video.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:49 PM on November 14 [1 favorite]


Here you go, video of the big event: https://www.facebook.com/nypl/videos/1878102088952921/
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 8:55 PM on November 14 [2 favorites]


If I only had a penguin, they’re likely using RFID tags.

We still barcode our books but it is done by our suppliers (along with shelf marks) and it is really just a way of identifying a particular copy (as an academic library, we often have multiples of the same item on the shelf) for staff. Everything else (security, self issue, etc) is handled by the rfid tag.

(I’d love a sorter but there is no space in our libraries so the closest we get is the handheld digital library assistant)
posted by halcyonday at 1:28 AM on November 15 [1 favorite]


But I can't help but think all this effort and machinery wouldn't be necessary if we could abolish copyright and subsidize e-readers.

Certainly there'd be a lot less books to sort under those circumstances.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:51 AM on November 15


But I can't help but think all this effort and machinery wouldn't be necessary if we could abolish copyright and subsidize e-readers.

Agree with your general idea. Ebook purchases are actually declining. Lots of people enjoy print. Libraries are one of the greatest things you can spend your tax dollars on (in the US) that isn't a basic human need. And those jobs are good, union (often) jobs.

Toronto uses RFID, pretty sure, and I don't know what their sorting system is but I know it's BIG. They're on Reddit and they do AMAs, you might want to ping them and ask.
posted by jessamyn at 2:58 PM on November 15 [1 favorite]


> I was wondering if Toronto Public Library has this machine, but I don't think they have barcodes anymore. I mean there are still barcodes on books, but I think those are old books that have the barcodes from before. I don't think new books are barcoded. So what does Toronto use, anyeone know?

TPL librarian here. I don't have much to do with circulation matters, personally, but I can tell you that we do use RFID and that new books are still barcoded; as halcyonday said, it's how specific copies are identified. Every branch has self checkout, and some have sorting machines; generally only the larger ones because of space issues. The processing centre on Ellesmere Rd. probably has a machine like this, but I've never been out there.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:30 PM on November 15 [1 favorite]


And those motherless books that can't be categorized?

Ameri-Shred [SLYT].
posted by cenoxo at 10:25 PM on November 15 [1 favorite]


I love this machine. If there's one thing that could get me out of retirement, it would be a chance to work on a machine like this again. It reminds me of check sorters I used to work on long ago.
I guess I had not thought about what it takes to get books back to the proper branch (this is also like check processing). Also, for an automatic process, it takes a lot of human operators.
I wonder at what point a machine like this becomes cost effective. I used to use the UHLS libraries near Albany, NY. They have a wide geographic area and almost 30 locations.
I used most of them (I drove a lot for my work), and I didn't think anything of returning a book to whichever one I was closest to at the time.
posted by MtDewd at 7:59 AM on November 19


Hmm...so this question of what TPL uses and the RFIDs and barcodes...It makes me wonder if some portion of the sorting is manual because... A few months ago I put a book on hold. There was a long line for this book and there were many copies so a few weeks later it came. Then when I picked it up and tried to check it out [something, something, don't recall] but I went to the person working at the desk and she scanned it and said that particular copy was on hold for someone else at another branch. That is, we had both put the book on hold and one copy was intended for me and one for the other person, but somehow the other person's had come to me.

Presumably only a human would have taken the books with the same titles and switched up the bins, right? A machine wouldn't even have cared they were the same titles and would have sent the right copy to the right branch.

I said, well presumably my copy went to them. Can you not just change them around and let me check out this copy instead of making us both wait while you ship our copies to each other? And indeed she could and she did, so it was fine.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:38 AM on November 20


If I Only had a penguin, yeah, there's always some manual intervention somewhere in the process of shipping books to different locations and processing reservations. The sorter will filter out books that are reserved into a box but someone will manually process those reservations so they don't go back on the shelf and are put on hold to the right person and then they'll be put in a transit box and sent to the location, so it's really easy to drop the wrong copy of a reservation into the wrong location box, especially if it is a high demand item with many reservations.
posted by halcyonday at 8:02 AM on November 29 [1 favorite]


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