California State University, Long Beach
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Efficiency is Key to New University Library Storage System

Published: January 30, 2009

At CSULB, the word ORCA doesn’t only refer to a killer whale.

When CSULB Library administrators and librarians considered ways to accommodate more customers, materials and faculty offices within the constraints of the Library and Academic Services building’s footprint, they looked to a high tech solution adopted by Cal State Northridge and several other U.S. universities.

Their decision led to the new Online Remote Collections Access (ORCA) system that began operating last fall as part of the library’s recent remodeling. “Our motivation for it was to find a way to prepare the library for the next generation of students and the generation beyond that, without building a new building and without having to extensively modify our building with the addition of more book stacks which would displace seats,” said Henry DuBois, administrative services librarian and a CSULB alumnus who has been with the library since 1967. “We were concerned with the seating capacity of the library, which has always been below the state standard, yet with the need to accommodate growing numbers of books.” Funding for ORCA and the library’s remodeling came from the Proposition 47 education bond.

“The solution we arrived at was an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) which is a very efficient way to store materials and yet deliver them in a way that is acceptable to library users.” He said that, for example, the University of California system has large central depositories from which books are ordered, which can take users days to receive. “The robot does it here in under five minutes,” DuBois noted. “It’s very fast and very efficient and quicker than having to write down call numbers and go to the stacks.”

In addition to freeing space, ORCA “enables you to put your lesser used research materials into the retrieval system and it leaves an active collection on the shelves that is circulating more frequently. It makes it easier for users to find those materials because they don’t have to go through shelves and shelves of books that they’re not interested in. It’s the books that are moving and are in demand that are on the shelves and are available for browsing.”

Moreover, he said, “It also allows the library to protect materials that are vulnerable. I used to be the art librarian and I bought art and photography books. I often found books razor-bladed or stolen. The books that are most subject to damage, mutilation and theft can be identified and put into ORCA. They’re still available and can be checked out, but we know who is checking them out and they’re protected while they’re in the building. That’s another bonus of the ASRS.”

ORCA was developed by HK Systems of Bountiful, Utah, which has installed library systems at 13 U.S. universities. It is the nation’s largest supplier of automated materials handling and storage systems for large organizations including business, government and health care. “Cal State Northridge was the first and they’ve had theirs for nearly 20 years. It survived the earthquake,” DuBois said. “University of Nevada, Las Vegas is a prominent installation and one that we looked at a lot. We made many field trips to Las Vegas to look at the library there because they have a lot of good ideas; ORCA is just one of them. Valparaiso in Indiana has one and Sonoma State is the second CSU to put one in. It’s a growing technology and one that is becoming very popular with libraries.”

Photo by Victoria Sanchez

Located in a new wing on the CSULB Library’s southeast side, ORCA stands three stories tall with three aisles holding 5,100 storage bins of five different heights to accommodate materials of varying size, capable of holding up to 850,000 volumes. Currently, about 1,600 bins are full and another 200 are partially filled.

DuBois explained that users enter their choices through the library’s COAST online search system, which they can do from any computer that can access the CSULB Web site. COAST will tell them whether the material is on the shelf or in ORCA.

If the item is in storage, a library attendant selects the request from one of six computer workstations and then an electric chain-driven tower fetches the appropriate bin and returns it to the attendant. Each bin is divided into three sectors and the computer tells the attendant in which sector to look. The last four numbers of the book’s ID code also is written on its edge, making it easier to find. The attendant scans the book’s bar code, prints and places a receipt inside its front cover and sends the book down to the main circulation desk for customer pickup. The system can handle up to six bins at a time.

Books are placed into bins according to size, not call number. Although bins are always stored in the same slot, books usually end up returned to different bins, tracked by the system’s complex software. Although this seems counterintuitive, it maximizes efficiency by allowing a book to be returned to a bin that already is at a workstation or has space.

Depending on how busy the library is, patrons can generally pick up their book order within 30 minutes, said Access Services Coordinator Vicky Munda. Visitors can watch the system in action on a TV screen in the lobby Starbucks coffee shop.

DuBois said that some faculty still want the option of searching through a number of books to find the information they’re looking for, so they can request up to 50 volumes in storage to be placed on browsing shelves near the circulation desk.

ORCA isn’t the library’s only new technology. Self-serve checkout kiosks are now available on several floors to help users avoid long lines at the main circulation desk. Patrons scan their campus ID card and book bar code into the system, which then prints out a receipt.

To learn more about ORCA, visit and