Big library systems struggling with the task of sorting interbranch requests for distribution on the library's delivery vehicles can buy a $2 million Lyngsoe Systems Compact Cross Belt Sorter, whose conveyor takes precisely hand-placed materials down a line of bins, scanning each item and tipping it into a bin destined for the right branch.
Washington State's King County pioneered the Lyngsoe system in America, and their example prompted a consortium of the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries to buy their own, to excellent effect.
Using the Lyngsoe is a physical art: the belt passes at 1.5m/s and each item has to be precisely aligned for scanning and deposit into the correct bin; human sorters have to quickly and carefully handle a very heterogenuous set of materials: DVDs, oversized hardcovers, floppy manga collections, etc.
In a first-of-its-kind competition, the King County and NY library workers faced off against each other in a head-to-head match to see who could sort the most materials, a race that sounds like a cross between gymnastics and juggling.
Matthew Taub's Atlas Obscura writeup of the sorting competition makes for a fascinating counterpoint to the insider horror stories from Amazon's warehouses, the biggest difference being whether the automation has been procured to help workers make a difficult task easier (the libraries) or to work them right up to the point of physical impossibility to wring every last penny of value out of their labor (Amazon).
Then, as sudden as the “thwack” of a perfectly placed book, the machine halts. The sorters can’t even raise their exhausted arms to celebrate. Their total is 12,330 books in one hour—that’s, astonishingly, over 96 percent of the machine’s capability. As someone calls for tequila, Cortez just tries to catch his breath. “I wish I could clap,” he says, hunched and panting, “but my arms are gone.” King County isn’t due to compete for a few hours, and the specter of their last-ups looms over every recited statistic and sweaty bro-hug. As if preparing for the worst, Magaddino surprises the team by announcing that the NYPL has selected them for a leadership award. It’s nice, but not what they came for. They want to be champions. No one knows it yet, but the outcome will be decisive, a blowout, even—12,330 to King County’s 10,007. The series is locked up at three apiece. That makes next year Game 7.
The Competitive Book Sorters Who Spread Knowledge Around New York [Matthew Taub/Atlas Obscura]
(Image: Matthew Taub/Atlas Obscura)