Does he have feelings for the machine? That would be a bit of an exaggeration, says Leen Meijboom, 70, but he ‘definitely had a lump in his throat’ when he found ‘the rubbish’ sitting in a skip in 2016. 2016 was the year in which the University Library underwent a major renovation. The book retrieval robot, also known as the ‘Randtriever’ (this is its official name, which Leen uses, too), was no longer welcome in the building. It was no longer cost-effective. “The students weren’t borrowing enough books. The library was increasingly turning into a multimedia resource centre.”
As a result, the Randtriever ended up in the skips, except for three metres’ worth of scaffolding and one robot, which are now displayed in the library’s skybridge. Leen is currently reconstructing three metres’ worth of the machine, which is all that is left of the eight times 35 metres it used to be. “It’s going to be preserved like a museum piece, to give an impression of the large version that used to be in the library’s cellar.” The machine has been put behind glass and looks like a steel shelving unit with transparent ‘containers’ that look like ring binders and contain books. A long robotic arm on wheels floats in front of it, affixed to a thick light metal pipe. So why is this machine worth being preserved like a museum piece?
The easiest answer to this question is the fact that the university was not allowed to renovate its library unless the machine was included in it like a museum piece. “The building that accommodates the University Library is part of the Woudestein listed building. The buildings provide an important visual image of post-war Rotterdam and have been named listed buildings by Rotterdam’s municipal council,” says restoration architect Gerard Frishert. “The Randtriever has been listed since 2006, as well. Therefore, a committee especially established for the purpose stated that the UL’s renovation was contingent on the machine’s being preserved like a museum piece.”
The committee said the following on the Randtriever: “It is one of the most notable technical innovations implemented in Dutch libraries.” Thanks to the Randtriever, which could hold up to 220,000 books, students needed only wait ten minutes after submitting a request to borrow a particular book. Ten minutes later the book would be ready to be picked up. Through a complicated system involving conveyor belts and containers, a robot was able to retrieve the book that had been requested. “Over the course of the years, people came from all over the world to see it. People from Bordeaux, India, Russia – they were all amazed,” says Leen. “It’s the predecessor to the machines used in present-day distribution centres operated by major companies such as Bol.com and Wehkamp [the Dutch equivalents to online giants such as Amazon –ed.]. They use this exact same system, except on a much grander scale.”
“On 28 March it will be fifty years ago that the supplier Remington Rand started building the Randtriever, the only one ever built in Europe. It was a unique machine back in its day, quite progressive,” says Leen. Due to increasing student numbers and the ‘tendency to stay open later’, automated book retrieval became an attractive option, according to the university’s cultural and historical exploration of the Randtriever. Leen Meijboom arrived at Erasmus University as a twenty-year-old lad, just thirteen days after the Randtriever itself, to install the book retrieval robot, which at the time was a futuristic and ground-breaking piece of engineering. “In 1977, the library decided it might be useful to hire someone who knew more about the workings of the machine. So I entered into the University Library’s employ.”
He never left. Leen – checked shirt, brown corduroy trousers – devoted his entire working life (43 years) to the book retrieval robot. He is called the ‘founder’ of the machine. But when that is pointed out to him, he says in a hush-now tone, “That’s a big word.” But he does admit that the fact that he spent forty years working on the machine is special. “It’s my life’s work.” Apart from that, though, it was just work. “Diverse and a bit of a challenge”, Leen calls his job – the same thing a police officer or university lecturer might say after forty years on the job.
Machine almost abolished
The machine certainly didn’t work properly at once. In its early days, many students and academics complained about it, says Gerard Frishert. The university’s magazine, Quod Novum (Erasmus Magazine’s predecessor), dedicated many sarcastic articles to the machine’s failures. “It took an enormous amount of maintenance, and service was interrupted all the time. Basically, it required full-time attention,” says Leen. “It was a great time for me. We had to find ways to improve the system, which required a lot of a creative thinking. But the university didn’t enjoy it quite as much as we did.”
It got to the point where the university considered, in 1975, to stop using the book retrieval robot altogether. However, EUR’s then Professor of Computer Science, Koos Verhoeff, wasn’t going to let that happen. He ‘adopted’ the machine and made it his prestige project. “Being a computer scientist, he was absolutely fascinated with such systems. He put his best people on it, and a special committee – of which I was a member, too – was established to solve the problems,” says Leen. The committee managed to get the system up and running properly again, thus saving it. In the end, Rotterdam was the only place where the system continued to perform properly.
Digitisation and renovation
Over the years, Meijboom and his colleagues kept fine-tuning and updating the machine. A book-requesting system involving punch cards was replaced by a computer, and the conveyor belt system became more technologically advanced. Leen retired in 2012, but the UL soon asked him to come back and further develop the machine and, eventually, to preserve it like a museum piece. These days he is the only person who understands every aspect of the machine. Leen and one other colleague were the specialists keeping it up and running. The two of them developed the robot and maintained it, and cleaned away every speck of dust on it. “That colleague suddenly passed away in 2001, which was quite a shock. So the machine outlived its handlers.”
Years later, when the UL embarked on its renovation, the decision was made to stop using the Randtriever, after all. “Due to digitisation, students hardly borrow books from the library any more. Most scholarly articles can be accessed on line. So it’s no longer cost-effective to keep the machine up and running.” So once the machine has been preserved for posterity, how will Leen deal with the fact that he has really, genuinely retired? “I’m quite busy with my family and extended family. I’m also active in my local church and a member of several choirs, so I’ll be just fine,” he says with a huge smile.