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Millions of Books! Field trip to ReCAP

August 8, 2014

Have I mentioned lately that my internship at the Burke Library is the best thing ever? Well, it is. Today, I joined a busload of other Columbia librarians for a field trip to ReCAP, an offsite storage facility for books and resources shared by Columbia, the New York Public Library and Princeton. ReCAP stands for The Research Collections and Preservation Consortium.

If you came here from the Burke Library Blog, welcome!

When we arrived at ReCAP, I saw a familiar face, Jacob Nadal. Last semester, he was my Digital Curation and Preservation professor (the one who got me hooked on Wikipedia). I’ll admit it, even though he was introduced to the group as Jake, I still wanted to call him Professor Nadal.

Let me show you the inner workings of the library world.

(And a slide show to help you picture what I saw.)Libraries will store portions of their collections in offsite facilities to save space, of course, or sometimes to put older or more fragile materials in places where the climate and environment can be more strictly controlled. An offsite facility will handle both requests from member libraries, and directly process interlibrary loans from member libraries to offsite libraries. So, if you are a researcher at Pratt Institute,  and want access to a book that Columbia has at ReCAP, the book will ship out from ReCAP directly to you at Pratt.

ReCAP houses over 11 million total volumes in giant, massive airport-hangar looking rooms.  (With room to grow into 30 million!) There is also a specially controlled, colder vault to preserve film.

A word about bookshelves: The library shelf you’re currently picturing, 6 feet tall or so, 3 feet wide? Not so much. Think taller. Much taller. “Go up in a cherry picker looking lift thing to go get the book” taller.

Rather than being shelved by call number or title, books are shelved in boxes according to their sizes, to conserve every bit of space. (This gives me the whimsical thought of wondering what kinds of juxtapositions evolve, say when physics and poetry and theology all happen to be the right size to share a carton.)

Barcodes on the book, their shelving carton, and shipping boxes that leave the facility help track the books. Trucks can back right up to the bay doors to be processed.ReCAP doesn’t store any bibliographic information at all about the books in their system. It’s all by bar code.

About fifty thousand books are processed into storage in a month, and ten thousand circulate to requesting libraries. How many lifetimes would it take to read that many books? Let alone the 30 million ReCAP has the potential to store!

After the books are processed, they go into the interior, main facility (a nice, chilly 55 degrees of humidity and climate controlled storage. glad I brought a sweater.) The temperature transition is monitored for more fragile items, which are given some time to adjust between emerging from the cool storage to the facility’s room temperature, and then to be shipped. Everything that can conceivably be controlled to preserve these books is done, from particle filtration systems to very intensive fire proofing.  This is all to increase the Time Weighted Preservation Index (TWPI), which is a fancy way of saying “the calculation of how long these books could survive nicely in these conditions.” They’re aiming for a TWPI of 250 years.

The cool climate controls for pests, and both the architecture and in-shelf sprinkler systems will take care of any hazard of fire.

The center’s proximity to Princeton’s Plasma Physics Lab, Jake observes, makes for “a very prompt, attentive fire department, who have the resources to put out an entire star.”

The administrative workings are also impressive, including budget set aside for constant improvement and replacement, so that no aspect of the system wears out and jeopardizes the books, along with efforts to become more energy efficient.

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