Alumni ProfileNorman Tanis '51
Taking libraries into the future

Norman TanisAccording to Norman Tanis '51, when you have unconventional ideas, it helps to be “a stiff-headed Dutchman.”

For almost a quarter century, Tanis was first director, then dean, of libraries at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). He was a new librarian when “information economics” was a new science, and, in books and articles, he soon became one of its important contributors.

His interest in optimal library operation eventually led Tanis to pioneer a book storage system that seemed to be a librarian's—and a patron's—nightmare. He named it “Leviathan.”

In the late 1980s the Oviatt Library at CSUN was running out of space for its rapidly growing collection. Tanis persuaded the university administration to build an addition and install robots traveling along six narrow 100-foot-long aisles between stacks, 40 feet high, of bins holding books in no particular order. In the dark.

This kind of automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) had been used successfully for years in industry warehouses. Tanis was convinced it was the answer to his library's escalating costs—not only new construction costs, but day-to-day maintenance costs as well.

The AS/RS at CSUN stores 12 times as many books per cubic foot as conventional open-stack shelving. The robots—modified forklifts with mechanical arms—retrieve book bins in the dark, require no heat and don't take lunch breaks. They allow almost no opportunity for thieves and make re-shelving effortless: A bar-coded returned book can be dropped in any available bin and its new location recorded with a light pen to direct future robotic retrievals.

Only about half of the library's items—those that haven't circulated in several years—are stored inside Leviathan. But the loudest criticism aimed at Tanis and his system initially came from faculty denied browsing rights among those materials.

“I kept reminding them that real scholars don't have to put their hands on the books,” Tanis said. “But the great convenience—they can order books from their offices via the online catalog then come over and pick them up in 10 minutes—that's what finally won them over.”

Tanis is proud to point out the library's AS/RS has run smoothly for over 16 years, needing only minor repairs after an earthquake in 1994. Other university libraries, including those at Valparaiso and Colgate, have adopted the system.

Besides his Leviathan, Tanis introduced many less startling innovations to library practice, all of them in keeping with his vision of a library as a cultural center. He expanded the Friends of the Library organization into a platform that brings special acquisitions, exhibits and performances to the Oviatt Library. He produced a series of videotaped interviews with Southern Californians of note. He also made the library home to Santa Susana Press, known for printing limited, fine-press editions of works by well-known authors, as well as unique miniature books, such as the constitution WWII Japanese internees wrote for their relocation camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo.

Often visionary, Tanis' ideas are infused with his knowledge of history. Once at a swap meet, a large bronze casting of a bird caught his eye, whereupon he imagined it crowning a mace, like those carried in European ceremonial functions since the 14th century. The mace Tanis designed and had fabricated has been carried in all CSUN ceremonial events since 1983. Until his retirement in 1991, Tanis himself was the carrier. “It made people think I was the campus boss,” Tanis said, “which I wasn't!”