A Real Page-Turner: Libraries Battle For Book-Sorting Championship

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Once a year for the past five years, the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries have faced off against Washington’s King County Library in a battle of the mechanical book sorters. In the most recent hour-long sorting smackdown, King County reclaimed the world title.

Anthony Miranda is the manager of materials distribution services for the King County Library System and Sal Magaddino is deputy director of BookOps, the 191-person unit that processes books for the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries. He's also a former captain in the New York Police Department. They joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: So whichever one of you came up with this grand idea for a competition should tell me how this whole thing started, please.

SM: I'd have to jump in there, Tony. You know, it's funny, when New York Public Library started many years ago, when I started 10 years ago, we needed new technology for sorting because the volume of our resources was just too high. So we saw a YouTube video of the King County Library Systems that Tony posted up. We saw they had the technology. We flew out there. We saw it actually exists — it wasn't a dupe.

BL: [Laughter] What a New York point of view! Your initial assumption was that it was a phony.

SM: [Laughter] Right, we couldn't believe that anything could sort books that fast and, especially coming from the West Coast, who knew, right? We didn't know. So once we got the machine up and running, then it was just a natural progression that we think we can do it better and bigger in New York.

Deputy Director of BookOps Sal Magaddino oversees the NYPL book sorting in action.(Courtesy The New York Public Library)
Deputy Director of BookOps Sal Magaddino oversees the NYPL book sorting in action.(Courtesy The New York Public Library)

BL: Tony, it sounds as if the idea of a competition was welcome. You didn't have any second thoughts about this, I gather.

AM: Ah, no. The library culture is one of sharing. It's not like proprietary knowledge that corporations keep to themselves. The library community is very open with each other. It's all to serve the patrons.

BL: This is a competition between sorting machines, I understand that. But human beings are very much involved. Sal, tell me a little bit about how this process works.

SM: We got 15 players at 15 positions that have to do exactly what they need to do. A few guys will put books on this rubber pad, and then we have other people have to scan these totes when the get full. And other people at the back end have to pull them off this palletizer. And also, you know what, the back end all relies on our computer system, and that has to give us messages back and forth in milliseconds. Both of us are kind of evenly matched. One mistake could make a difference.

AM: Absolutely. I said that: the difference was maybe one person holding their bladder a little bit longer, not leaving the station. So it's these little factors.

BL: I understand that you guys have done, to some extent, what mayors of cities that have teams competing in competitions have done. You have had side bets where you send each other something if you lose, right? What's going on in that respect?

SM: I gotta jump in here, Tony. Here's where we're a little disappointed in your side of the house. When we lose, we have been sending them Junior's Cheesecake from New York and Ferrara's pastry, which is a renowned bakery. In return, we get coffee and salmon. You know, it's just not the same for us here in New York. We expect a little bit more.

AM: [Laughter] The palate, I guess the New York palate, you still think everything west is New Jersey. There's a lot of taste in coffee and salmon, my friend.

BL: Tony, you gotta be a little careful, I'm from New Jersey.

AM: Talk about being careful: it's my understanding with Sal's past connection with NYPD, I think my picture is up in Newark International right now, as well.

Machines carry the bulk of the sorting duties, but library workers keep things running smoothly. (Courtesy The New York Public Library)
Machines carry the bulk of the sorting duties, but library workers keep things running smoothly. (Courtesy The New York Public Library)

BL: I understand that your library card has been revoked.

AM: Exactly, I tell you what: my interest in coloring books and puzzles has really waned over the years, so I'm not sure there's anything I'd be looking for at the NYPL.

SM: [Laughter] You know, I don't know how many Bills of Rights or Gutenberg Bibles you have in your library, but we have a few, I can tell you that.

AM: [Laughter] I don't know if you're aware of this, Sal, or Bill, but KCLS patrons, on average, check out eight to 10 items a year. If you look at statistics, that's probably a lifetime's worth for a NYPL patron.

SM: Well, I don't know about that, Tony. We just have so much more demand from our patrons, and, uh, you know, our collection is probably double or triple your collection. We have a wide variety of stuff. I mean, we have our scholars here.

This segment aired on November 21, 2015.



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