A Growing Problem

Library of Congress Looks for Ways to Store Increasing Collection

Posted July 9, 2003 at 1:43pm

As the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress boasts a stunning length of bookshelves — approximately 530 miles. But, it seems, even that distance is just short of the facility’s needs.

In an ideal world, “every book has its place,” acknowledges Steven Herman, chief of the Library’s Collections Access, Loan and Management Division.

But at the Library, which houses more than 26 million books and other materials such as maps, photographs and manuscripts, there are about 50,000 books without a home.

Most of those books are placed in aisles between the Library’s stacks, and although access to the area is limited to staff, the books are still in danger of being kicked, exposed to leaking pipes or damage to bindings from less-than-proper storage conditions.

“The preservation office is concerned with materials that aren’t housed properly,” Herman explained. One example is the variety of large folio-sized books housed that, although stored on shelves, are stacked in vertical rows, rather than in small horizontal piles, which would be more conducive to preservation efforts.

To accommodate its nearly 19 million volumes, the Library has also been forced to file books two or three rows deep on some shelves and occasionally use overflow areas to store items.

The overflow stems in part from the constant influx of items received by the Library, which sorts through as many as 22,000 items daily to make additions to its collections.

“We’re a growing library,” Herman explains. “We’re not stagnate … and on Capitol Hill we have finite space.”

The Library’s facilities on the Hill include the Thomas Jefferson Building, which opened in 1897 as the Library’s first permanent building and has enough space for about 5 million books, and the John Adams Building, originally built as a storage facility, which can house about 12 million books. The James Madison Building serves primarily as a home to special collections items.

Among the difficulties of a constantly growing collection is that the Library must shift books to make space for expanding collections.

“The challenge for us is that collections do not grow at the same rate,” Herman said. For example, he notes, the number of books accompanied by a CD-ROM or floppy disk, typically programming languages or computer-related materials, have boomed in recent years, as did history books following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Another challenge, Herman said, is predicting when the Library may receive special collections items, which may include globes, maps, manuscripts or film.

A library is considered “functionally full” when it is filled to about 80 percent of its capacity, Herman explained. That amount of space allows for corrective shifting for the addition of items such as magazines or journals, which are added to a collection as hard-bound volumes on a regular basis.

“You have to keep making room for something that’s an active periodical,” said Herman, who estimates the Library is at about 90 percent of its capacity.

To alleviate the crush, Library officials are focusing on the creation of more off-site storage.

The first high-density storage module at Fort Meade, Md., opened in November 2002, and four additional units are planned through 2009. The area has space for 13 storage facilities.

The first building, an 8,500-square-foot facility designed to hold nearly 1.2 million items, will be filled within the next year, Herman said. Carts of books sat ready in the Library’s stacks early last week to be shipped to the new facility.

In a high-density facility, the books are stored based on size, rather than by subject, and the Library uses a series of bar codes to identify the location of each book.

The books are delivered twice daily to the Hill based on patron requests, and thus far, Herman notes proudly, “Every request we’ve gotten we found the book.”

The storage facility’s 100 percent retrieval rate is actually better than the Library’s percentage.

Additionally, the new storage facilities — construction on the next unit is set to begin this fall — allow the Library to create environments with controlled temperature and moisture levels to support preservation efforts.

“It’s not only a space issue, it’s a preservation issue,” Herman said. Because paper lasts longer at lower temperatures, books in a 50- degree room can have a life span nearly six-fold of those stored at average room temperature.

To consolidate its collection of 900,000 films and 2.6 million audio materials, the Library is also in the process of creating the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va.

At a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing earlier this year, Librarian of Congress James Billington described the project as a “world-class, state-of-the-art conservation center that will, for the first time, consolidate and integrate the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting, Recorded Sound Division, administrative, acquisitions, processing, storage, preservation, laboratory transfer, and reformatting activities in one central facility.”

The center, housed in the 140,078-square-foot former Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, should provide space to the Library for storage of items added to the audio-visual collection for a minimum of 25 years after it is opened.

Because the three-story building is almost completely underground, it is easily adaptable for low-temperature and low-humidity storage, which is necessary to preserve motion picture, video and recorded sound items.