Sunday, April 09, 2006

Towers of Terror, or, CD storage using Disc Stakka

K. kindly poses in front of our Stakkas. There is a general purpose PC tucked in between the Stakkas (behind K.) that runs the software. In the youth library and the small branch, the circ PC holds the software for the Stakkas. The Stakka software is minimized and is activated either by presenting a disc into the slot (when returning) or maximizing the window (for retrieving

In answer to a comment on the previous post (thanks kit for taking the time) I have decided to pontificate on something rather mundane but which might be of interest to someone - our experiences with storing those pesky music CDs that our customers love so much.

Firstly, a bit of philosophizing. Why do we buy music CDs anyway? Since when and why did libraries become major lenders of music?? I remember the far distant days when the State Library started supplying cassettes as part of the bulk loans to our country libraries. They were a hit, especially the country and western cassettes! But oh dear, weren't they delicate. They didn't last very long in the hot and dusty (and at that time, largely non-airconditioned environments) that we sent them out to. I'm not sure what the specific rationale was back then, but I suspect that it was around the theory that if we supplied stuff that maybe non-readers liked, they might also notice our print materials, and if not, they would at least support the library - so basically, a "bait" and/or PR value was placed on these "non core" items.

When I became the manager of a small library service, cassettes were on the wane, in favour of the new disc format that was supposed to be indestructible (hah!). So I held off for a few years, and we started buying music CDs seriously about 5 years ago. At first I had the same rationale - bait or PR - but lately I have revised that to recognize the innate value of providing music via the library. Now it's more along the lines of "providing opportunities for extended cultural experiences" or something like that (I've yet to re-write the collection development policy to encompass this new philosophy so I haven't worked this through yet). Let's face it, music CDs are expensive, so library users have the benefit of a much wider exposure to music than if they had to buy all of it - our limit is 10 CDs on loan at any one time per borrower, there aren't too many people in the general population who could afford to buy 10 CDs every fortnight. Some borrowers have stated that they use the service as a "try before I decide to buy" strategy. Some borrowers couldn't afford to buy any of course, so either way we've achieved our goal of broadening the range of listening experiences of our customers. In the adult collection, there's a heavy emphasis on world music and classical music, with less emphasis on popular music which can be heard readily on the radio (remember we are trying to extend experiences not just replicate them); however, we have significantly adjusted this thinking with the youth library coming on stream; in this case, it's important for young people to have access to a good range of music that is relevant to their culture; the library is an equalizer between young people with the means to listen to a wide range of music (by purchase or via the Internet), and young people without the financial means to do this. And I guess by extension this may also apply to adults so I might have to rethink our collection policy on that score...

Anyway, once having committed to buying CDs, you need a way to circulate them. Unfortunately, a combination of their desirability, their expense, and their size, make them highly susceptible to theft. Our library does not yet have a security system for its print items (hard to believe, but truly, theft has been almost negligible to date), so locking cases were not an option, and at first we resorted to making up a plastic sleeve for every CD and keeping them behind the desk, only displaying the empty case. As you can imagine, as our collection grew to several hundred titles, finding and filing CDs became a major pain. Especially with the human error factor - CDs filed in the wrong sleeves or matched to the wrong cases. You get the picture.

So when I saw an ad for the Disc Stakka I thought my prayers had been answered. I bought 5 units for the youth library and they have been in operation there for around 4 months. They were working pretty well, so I lashed out and bought another 25 (yes that's twenty five) to store the collections at the main branch library and at one of our other branches. (I wonder if that qualifies us as "early adopters" of a new technology?)

So have they been the answer to my prayers? Well not quite...

You see, storing CDs in a library environment is not the primary purpose of these units - so I'm assuming - and as such, the software is not ideal to this purpose. Specifically, the human/machine interface is fraught with many opportunities for buggering up - press the wrong key and your CD is gobbled up by the Stakka never to be seen again - well, you can eventually retrieve it, but only after a lengthy database verification process. And with a linked stack of 15 units, it really is lengthy requiring the system to (slowly) spit out each CD while you eyeball each one and confirm it's the one it's supposed to be. And it doesn't have an automatic return function - when returning a disc, you have to scroll down the list to find its name (in our case, its barcode number), highlight it, and then tell it OK. Nothing like a simple Control F function is available - lose your concentration and click on the wrong number - see database verification process (again) as above. Also they don't interface with our circ system - they are really only a flashier version of our behind the desk slip storage system. And when we do finally get our security system they may become obsolete in favour of locking cases...

These issues aside, and assuming perfect human accuracy, it is a great place to store CDs. And very impressive looking. And quite cheap - each unit retails for around $200. Maybe as "early adopters" from the library market we can influence the manufacturers (and by the way I believe it is an all Aussie invention) to tweak the software to make it more useful and friendly. We'll certainly be trying.


  • "Why do libraries buy CDs?" -- I think it's also an attempt to enhance the library experience, and make services more appealing.

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  • I had some experience with these devices about 3 years ago. At that time (and possibly still now) they were powered off the USB port. Once 20 or so were connected to a computer, the whole Stakka system became very unstable. Machines would randomly "disappear" from the USB bus and then go through a lengthy reinitialization process. And similar to the tale above, if one of the devices glitched while storing or retrieving a disc, good luck in getting the database synchronized again. But I'm glad that, for the most part, the system works for you. It became more of a hassle than I was willing to endure.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:07 AM  

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