Shelving Made Easy (or Easier)

Putting misshelved books back in their proper places is not a library worker’s favorite task. It takes time and it’s not exactly scintillating. Now a computer-science professor has come up with a way to make the process faster and less burdensome: an augmented-reality shelf-reading app that can scan an entire shelf’s worth of books at a time and alert workers which ones are out of place.

Bo Brinkman is an associate professor of computer science and software engineering at Miami University, in Ohio. A specialist in augmented reality and computer ethics, he happens to be married to the university’s art-and-architecture librarian. Hearing his wife talk about trying to motivate student workers to do more shelf-reading got Mr. Brinkman thinking about creative solutions to the problem.

The app he came up with, tentatively called Shelvar, relies on special tags—kind of like QR codes—attached to the books’ spines. Each tag “exactly represents the call number” of each book, Mr. Brinkman explains. A user with a current-generation smartphone or tablet computer scans the shelf using the app, and Shelvar indicates which books aren’t in the right places. Visual cues, including directional arrows, indicate where the misfiled book ought to go.

There are inventory apps that scan books one at a time, according to Mr. Brinkman, but he doesn’t know of any others that work with many volumes at once. “Our hope is to be a hundred times faster—instead of scanning one book at a time, you scan 144 books at a time,” he says.

The biggest hassle with Shelvar involves tagging books in the first place. For new acquisitions, libraries could just add the tags as they catalog and process each book. The next step is figuring out just how big a deal it is to tag existing collections. In the next round of testing, “the main thing we’re going to be looking at is how much time does it take to put on the tags, and how much time does it save once they’re on?” Mr. Brinkman says.

He designed most of the code. Matt Hodges, his undergraduate research assistant, focused on the user interface. For the prototype, they worked with Google Nexus One smartphones and Samsung Galaxy tablet. For the moment, the app works on the Android platform, but Mr. Brinkman intends to design an iPhone version as well. “There’s no way we can market it successfully if we don’t have both,” he says.

Just how it’s marketed—or if it’s marketed at all—depends on several factors. First, Mr. Brinkman has to find out how well the app really works and whether it’s the time- and-money-saver he hopes it will be. He plans to do an alpha test late this year in one or two sections of Miami University’s library system, involving maybe 70 to 100 linear feet of books and one student worker. If that goes well, he’ll stage a much bigger trial.

Then the university and the state “have first rights to patent anything,” the computer-science professor says. “If the school decides to pass on it, we’ll probably have a very different business model.”

At the moment, Mr. Brinkman thinks that the shelf-reading app probably ought to be free, so that library workers could just download it on their phones, requiring a minimal investment upfront. More sophisticated versions might find a market, either among libraries or even commercial entities such as booksellers. “In the end, it only makes sense if it’s a lot cheaper than the way they’re currently doing it,” he says. “Otherwise they wouldn’t buy it anyway.”

Even at this early stage, Shelvar has turned some heads. It made a splash at the recent Association of College and Research Libraries meeting in Philadelphia. “I would say that the biggest reaction I’ve gotten has been, ‘Wow, it would be nice not to have to do shelf-reading,’” Mr. Brinkman says. The YouTube demo video he posted on March 22 has gotten more than 30,000 hits. Augmented-reality enthusiasts have shown even more interest than librarians have, he says, because so much augmented-reality design hasn’t really focused on practical needs yet.

For librarians, though, Shelvar could be the answer to a very practical concern. “Keeping the books in order is not what librarianship is all about, but it’s something they have to do in order to give users a good experience,” Mr. Brinkman says.

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