Posts Tagged ‘columbia university’

College campus is home to 7.5M books, will eventually house 32M books

all those books reside in Forrestal campus near Princeton

The first thing that hits you is the sheer enormity of it: thousands of books packed on shelves that stretch on for so long they end in a blur. These shelves march on and on in uniform rows. And then you look up, and realize these stacks climb three stories high. This is a real-world place, but it can feel like you’ve stepped into Alice’s Wonderland. The Research Collections and Preservation Consortium, or ReCAP, is an astonishingly huge offsite library facility, the largest of its kind in the country, located on Forrestal Campus, in Middlesex County, near Princeton. It holds 7.5 million volumes, overflow from the shelves of Princeton and Columbia Universities and the New York Public Library. Every day, an average of 3,000 more books are dropped off. Eventually, the 85,000-square-foot facility will triple in size, to absorb a staggering 33 million books and media items.

“This is something new in the last 10 years, for libraries to think this way, to store their materials away from the public,” said executive director Eileen Henthorne, during a tour of the 30-foot high shelves in the huge refrigerated warehouse that first opened in 2002. Four forklifts beeped and whirred as their operators retrieved requests of bound volumes or other archival materials, microfilm, audio and videotapes, maps and posters. In a few cases, portions of books would be electronically scanned and e-mailed to patrons. But most users want to thumb through the authentic article. ReCAP will deliver about 24,000 volumes this year to the college campus or city library, all within 24 hours of a request, by daily shuttle.

Little known outside library circles, ReCAP is not a browsable library, and is not open to the public. Henthorne has received professionals from England, Australia and Taiwan who come to see how a high-density storage facility for low-use books can free up limited space and preserve assets. The facility is funded through a consortium of Princeton University, Columbia University and the New York Public Library. It is how the New York Public Library can move forward with plans for a major transformation of its facility at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, where it plans new reading rooms. Materials from the central stacks will be carted away to ReCAP and another storage facility.

Three million of Columbia University’s 10 million volumes now reside in Plainsboro, said ReCAP coordinator Zack Lane. “There is a general shift in libraries to repurpose the library for study space, instead of collection of books.” “There was quite a bit of resistance before it started” said Lane. “People were afraid a book would be out of sight, out of mind.” But now every book can be accounted for and accessible; ReCAP boasts a 99.999 efficiency rating.

“Actually, we never lose an item,” Henthorne said. “If anything goes missing, everything is halted and we scramble. Because if you miss a book’s bar code, the item will be lost forever.” It helps that the people Henthorne hires to work at ReCAP share her admitted Type-A personality. For relaxation, the former project manager enjoys putting together several jigsaw puzzles at once. She looks for similar exacting personality traits in applicants, a strong sense of responsibility, and the ability to count backward, for shelving duty.

“When you get an old book, over 100 years old, you feel like you are preserving history,” said Scott Popovich, 37, of Trenton, doing a shift in the Accession and Verify department. His job on this day (the workers alternate job duties, to avoid getting bored) is to pick up books, such as “The Journal of Sub-Microscopic Cytology and Pathology,” measure it against a sizing plate to determine the kind of acid-free cardboard tray it will fit into, and scan the bar code. Many of the books he touches are written in foreign languages. They can be very old, or very rare. “In a real sense, I’m taking care of this stuff, ” he said.

With 3,000 books passing through every day, this is no place for a curious bibliophile. The workers rarely stop to take a peek. “Well, once some Playboys from the 1950s came in, and the line did slow down a little,” Henthorne said with a laugh. ReCAP’s master plan calls for 11 modules, or free-standing, interconnected storage facilities. The fifth just opened, but plans to build the next one, which will hold about 3.3 million books, have been shelved until 2011 due to the weak economy, said project manager Bob Rittenhouse of Aegis Property Group, Philadelphia.

The costs don’t end with the construction, which includes special fire walls to reduce the consequences of a disaster. To keep ReCAP at a steady 55 degrees Fahrenheit, 33 percent relative humidity, the nonprofit consortium pays PSE&G $400,000 a year. To stabilize the cost, it recently entered into an agreement with PPL Renewable Energy, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania Power and Light, to allow 5,000 solar panels be installed on the roof. “We locked into a relatively modest utility rate over next 15 years,” Rittenhouse explained.

One might wonder why universities and libraries bother to keep books at all, in this digital age. Karin Trainer, university librarian at Princeton, explained in an e-mail: “It’s a common misconception that Google is digitizing every book ever published. Intellectual property law, as well as various technical problems with page size and illustrations, mean Google’s scope is actually more limited.” So the shelving will continue at ReCAP, where conscientious caretakers are preserving treasured physical artifacts, guaranteeing their longtime survival. “I don’t think of this as a morgue at all; this is a spa for books,” said Henthorne.