HHH: Library Robot Helpers

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When we think of how we might use robots in the future, we often imagine them replacing people’s jobs. McKinney Public Library recently introduced new robot helpers to the library floor (the first in a Texas public library to do so), and instead of threatening jobs, they are actually pulling people out of work they don’t really like and freeing up staff time for more engaging work like programming and reference.  Also, the robots have become a huge hit with their community, driving more people to the library. 

Today’s highlight: library robot helpers

I had the chance to interview Spencer Smith, director of libraries for the City of McKinney, about their library’s new additions.

Photograph showing robot on library floor holding books in its trays.

How it started:

“Out of the 1.5 million circulations for McKinney Public Library last year, about one million of those were at our John & Judy Gay branch library. It’s about 35,000 square feet, and its turnover rate is huge like any busy library. When the summer comes around, the whole kids section looks like a tornado hit it. The shelves are empty; everything that’s there is out of place. We had a lot of staff time spent picking up the unshelved items, bringing them to the back, getting them in the right order to check in. We could track that in-house use and what that traffic was, and it just added up to be quite a bit of staff time.”

“We were brainstorming about what to do. This is a tedious task: you’re out there, you’re cleaning up, it’s boring. Wouldn’t it be great if people would do that for us, and just bring the books back that they don’t want to check out? Coincidentally, around that time, one of our staff members went to, I think it was, a sushi restaurant in the area that had a robot that would deliver sushi to your table. Your waiter would take your order, and then the food would come by on this robot, and you just pull it off the robot to eat. And this staff member was talking about how awesome that was, and we just thought, well, if it can take sushi to people, can it not also take materials from people in the library? Can we not just set the same kind of robot out there on the library floor? We had no idea how much it cost at the time; we didn’t know anything. But we thought, if people would just put things on that robot and we can get that robot to take it to the back, that’s like 100 staff hours a week that we don’t have to have people out there gathering loose books.”

“We started looking into it more as a joke, like this isn’t going to happen; these things are way too expensive, it’s not going to work. And then unexpectedly, we found a company, American Robotech, in Plano, right down the road from us. And they said they could bring out a robot to demo at our library the very next week. They brought it out, and they mapped it (programmed it where it could move on the floor). On Day One, it was like the Pied Piper: every kid in the building just started following it around. We could have had him go anywhere; it could have left the building, and they would have followed it. People would just stop and stare as it was moving around.”

“We thought maybe we’re on to something. All of a sudden, the returning of books was no longer the primary purpose of the robot; it became almost a bonus. With it making people just stop and drop their mouths open while they’re watching it move about, that’s pretty cool in and of itself. So that first week went by really smoothly for us, and we could see the potential.”

After the demo, Smith and his team decided to go all in, and, with some available unspent funds and the enthusiastic support of their CFO, the library was able to purchase two of the robots for the branch.

Chart showing statistics of the robot
Chart showing statistics of the robot

How it works:

“We analyzed where within the library the heavy use periods are. We then programmed the robot to go sit in a particular one of these zones for 10 minutes, and then move to another zone for 10 minutes, and again for another 10 minutes, etc. Using a tablet, all of our staff can summon the robot to wherever they are. If they want to send supplies for a program across the library because it’s so busy or don’t want to carry the supplies themselves, they can load the robot up and send it using the tablet to where it’s needed. It works remarkably well. It works with lidar. If you’re unfamiliar with lidar, it’s kind of like radar, only it uses lasers to map our floor plan. To initially set it up, you turn the robot on and literally push it around where you want it to go, and it records that, sensing things all the time.”

Map of library floor that shows heavy-use areas and pre-programmed path of robot
Map of library floor that shows heavy-use areas and pre-programmed path of robot

Additional features:

  • Initially, staff were worried that the books were going to stack up too high and fall off, but they do not. The robots are designed to carry full cups of water without spilling them in a restaurant setting, so it’s very smooth. 
  • There is a screen where the library can advertise our programs. 
  • It can respond to voice prompts and it will play music (though they turn the music off). They’ve learned the silent movement does not negatively impact patrons’ library experience. 
  • It has a mode where, if it senses a person nearby, it can switch to where it advertises to them (a hold-over for when it worked in restaurants).. As a joke one time, they had it ask people if they were John Connor from The Terminator films, and people loved that.

Community engagement:

“When the robot is running during open hours, you’ll often see a group of kids walking around with it the whole time. It’s really been effective for us. We put out a press release, and like five minutes later, we started getting calls. It was immediate. We were on the local Fox News morning show – a live spot. We were in the Dallas Morning News, all the local papers, those YouTube videos. Our city has put us on the city’s Instagram account. It’s been really, really popular.”

“We’re still scratching the surface for the value that it can provide.”

Next steps:

Guidance: “We’re experimenting with voice prompts now that could direct the robot to guide the patron somewhere in the library or answer questions like, “where’s the bathroom?”. It can also employ a touchscreen for patrons to select specific sections of the library, such as: adult mystery, juvenile picture books, study room entrances, etc. and the robot can be programmed to lead the patrons to that section. This will free up staff to spend more of their time with patrons who have more difficult or involved questions.”

“The robot could potentially be used to help patrons find a needed item in the catalog.”

Programming: “We’re big on programming; every staff member is involved in programming at some point, and we haven’t really figured out a way to get the robots directly involved in programming yet – with actual learning outcomes where they’re actually making a difference, not just as being in the room. We’re open to ideas. Anybody who reads this and wants to send them along, please do.”

Have people put other things on the robots besides books?

“We’ve had stuffed animals take rides around the library, and usually there’s a kid just following along. We’ve had little kids try to climb on them, but it stops, and parents are usually picking that up or staff are there to stop them. But we don’t see people leaving their trash on it. If they did, it wouldn’t surprise me; we had someone put a whole bag of something in our book drop the other day that started going through the conveyor. The bag had a book in it, but it also had some other stuff, so it would be par for the course, I suppose.”

Send any robot comments and suggestions to Henry at hstokes@tsl.texas.gov

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