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Where do you put 10 million books?
Construction of library warehouse under way

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — One would expect the library of the future to look moderately, perhaps even extremely, different from its current incarnation.

In the near future, libraries might contain voice-activated online catalogs, for example, or patron identity pads. Eventually, they may use pieces of equipment beyond our current imagining.

And forklifts.

Yes, forklifts. Within the next 11 or 12 months the Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – the largest public university library in the world, having just acquired its 10 millionth volume – will begin using a modernized and specially crafted forklift to retrieve out-of-reach library materials from as high as 40 feet above floor level.

The Library also will be using warehouse-type shelving, special book trays and a great deal of bar coding – on shelves, trays and books – to keep track of everything.

This is the future in storage and retrieval for overcrowded libraries. Low-usage books and other materials will be housed on industrial-type shelving arranged in modular units. Materials will be sorted by size, not call numbers, and packed in trays, and items too high to reach by hand will be retrieved by forklifts.

The high-density shelving is “the new model for research libraries,” said Betsy Kruger, head of central circulation and book stacks at Illinois’ Library, and coordinator of a project she describes as “without a doubt the most challenging space management project the library has ever undertaken.”

Facing unparalleled overcrowding in its stacks and departmental libraries, the Library administration began a massive project to relocate the first 1 million books two years ago.

The plan included building a facility six blocks from the Main Library, where “low use” materials – as evidenced by their last date of circulation, generally 10 to 20 years ago – duplicates and older runs of little used serials and serials that have electronic equivalents could be warehoused and accessed by a small and specially trained staff. Some materials may be moved to the new facility not because of their low-usage status, but “because of the superb preservation environment that it will provide,” Kruger said, noting that the new facility will have year-round temperature, humidity and clean-air controls.

Right now the new “cold-storage” warehouse, called the Oak Street High Density Shelving Facility – or Oak Street Facility, for short – is a gaping hole in the ground. Excavation began in mid-September. Library officials expect that the 40,000 square foot facility – which also will include a staff space, a reading room and eventually a conservation lab – will be enclosed by February and completed by next September. The first shipment of some 100,000 fully processed books should arrive by mid-November 2004.

Which is none too soon. The Library’s space situation has for some time been dire, Kruger said.

The book stacks alone – 10 decks of books in the Main Library containing 5.75 million books – reached “operational capacity seven years ago, and we reached 100 percent in 2000,” Kruger said, noting that national standards set “full working capacity” at 86 percent, which leaves 5 inches free for each 3-foot shelf. The Library’s last book stacks addition opened in 1984, and was, according to Kruger, “60 percent filled at opening.”

Kruger cited “ever mounting operations costs and declining opportunities for new construction” as reasons why the Library has been unable to add more conventional stacks. That’s why the Library opted for Plan B: less expensive warehouse-type housing, modular units and high-density shelving.

Overcrowding on the magnitude Illinois is experiencing has meant that the stand-alone departmental libraries – of which there are more than 40 – haven’t been able to transfer materials from their collections into the stacks for more than a year, leading to sometimes massive overcrowding in those libraries, Kruger said.

Also, “in some call-number areas in the stacks, material is piled up on the floor. Overcrowding makes the collection difficult for users and staff to access and increases preservation problems.”

In all likelihood the first 500,000 books earmarked to go to Oak Street will come from the book stacks in the Main Library. The first module at Oak Street is expected to hold 2 million books. Additional modules will be built over the next 10 years, ultimately providing space for 6.8 million volumes.

According to Peter Maass, building project manager, the new building will be “unique – the first of its kind, not just locally, but nationally” largely because of its height.

The floor also is unusual. It must be “super-flat” for the safety of the forklift operator, so “significantly higher standards” were used in designing the floor.

The facility will be a steel structure building with pre-formed “tilt-up” concrete panels and a steel roof. The windows will be aluminum.

The materials are durable, Maass said, “so the building will serve the university for many years to come. Our standard is to build for 100 years.”

Pre-selectors and selectors began flagging relocation candidates last January. To date, 845,739 volumes have been earmarked from the stacks in the Main Library for a new life at Oak Street

A fraction of those books are now being processed in another university building, the Horticulture Field Laboratory. Processing begins with a good cleaning – vacuuming with HEPA filters. Next, books are physically stabilized or repaired, if necessary. They then are stored in trays according to size, and “volumes, trays and shelves are all bar coded to support retrieval,” Kruger said. To maximize efficiency, shelves are designed to accommodate trays packed two-deep with volumes of similar size.

At the same time, the online catalog record is being upgraded to reflect the books’ locations and status.

“One of the biggest objections from faculty to such facilities on other campuses has been lack of accessibility,” Kruger said.

“We’ll be working really hard to minimize accessibility issues for our users,” she said. “Unlike the Harvard Depository, 26 miles from Cambridge, our facility will be right here.”

Kruger said that all of the holdings will be “fully described bibliographically in the online catalog.” Users will be able to place requests for Oak Street materials via the online catalog just like they do at book stacks and departmental libraries. And materials will be delivered to departmental libraries for pickup or through campus mail for faculty, staff and graduate students with campus offices.

Retrieving items in the new system will be quite different from standard methods.

“As users request materials via the online catalog, we receive a request at the facility and that request has the item barcode. We scan the item bar codes into our inventory database and out pops a ‘pick list’ with items, tray and shelf locations of that piece.”

The logistics of the project – because of the amount of books involved – have been daunting, Kruger conceded, but she and the administration have learned a great deal from those research libraries that have gone to this new system “to see how they manage.”

“And we track just about everything we do with Microsoft Access databases. We could not do this without it.”

In addition, they “accession” materials with inventory control software from Generation Fifth Associates in Maine, which links the three bar-coded numbers – item, tray, shelf.

Of course, once a “critical mass” of books has been removed from the Main Library book stacks, Kruger pointed out, “we’ll have to begin shifting the entire book stacks collection. From that point, for every book that comes into the stacks, another will need to be transferred to Oak Street.”
Kruger said she hates to use military metaphors these days, but concedes that this project has been like moving an army, “or better yet, resettling a nation of war refugees.”