Media return unit

A look behind the “monastery gate” where 70,000 media return home every year. Photograph: Regula Bearth © ZHdK

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On level 5 of the Toni Campus, in front of the library, a mouth patiently opens and closes, swallows books that have been read and DVDs that have been watched. The returns disappear into the machine’s stomach on a conveyor belt, never to be seen again. But what happens after a book has passed the built-in sensor and the curtain made of black bristles? Felix Falkner, deputy director of the Media and Information Centre (MIZ), opens the secret door to the bowels of the media return unit. The rear side of the “monastery gate,” as Falkner calls the flap, consists of roller conveyors that distribute the returned media in all directions and ensure that “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” lands in bin 2 and not in bin 3. The bins are rolling vehicles, not unlike prams, into which the media tumble, sorted by location and type, so that no heavy book falls on delicate DVD covers.

Around 70,000 items pass through the machine’s digestive tract every year, 24 hours a day. It tirelessly categorises musical scores, heavy and light literature, media criticism and science fiction. But its close co-worker Kurt Stirnimann doesn’t feel threatened by the machine. He sees it as a relief, he says, especially since there is still plenty of manual shelving to do. Things don’t work completely without people. The fully automatic media devouring and processing unit can confidentially send Stirnimann a text message if a ribbon gets entangled in the conveyer belt, if a jam occurs or if a bunch of keys has accidentally fallen into the unit. So-called user-autonomous operation means that borrowed items can be returned even at 2 a.m. (MIZ statistics confirm the use of the 24/7 option). Sometimes, though, a stowaway lands in the return flap. What would not escape the trained librarian’s eye leads the unit to reopen its mouth after brief consideration. Failing radio frequency ID, which is affixed to every item, the unit cannot categorise the returns and refuses to accept them. When pressing “Complete without receipt,” the monastery gate once again closes, and the machine goes into sleep mode, dreaming machine dreams in the dark.

In this section, staff and students present special items from everyday life at an arts university. For other favourites visit:
Fabienne Koch ( is doing a BA in Film at ZHdK and sees animate creatures in inanimate things.
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