Discovering treasures in Library’s storage vaults

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — I’m guiding a group tour through the Oak Street Library Facility and we’ve reached my favorite part – the big moment of reveal. I step close to open the automatic overhead vault door, and visitors catch their first glimpse of the vaults with their 40-foot-high shelving packed with library materials. One visitor gasps, and another exclaims that it is just like the warehouse in the Indiana Jones movie, except filled with library books.

Nick Hagen, left, and Andy Sims work in the storage vaults.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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As the visitors snap photos, I share statistics about the size of the collection at more than 4 million volumes and the capacity of the vaults at roughly 85 percent. I provide details for some of our bigger endeavors, such as the Big Ten Academic Alliance Shared Print Repository.

Nick Hagen operates a lift to work at the top of the stacks. The vaults with 40-foot-high shelving hold more than 4 million volumes.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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Before we enter the vaults, our tour starts in the storage facility’s workroom, where the visitors wind their way through carts and tables loaded with books, serials and library materials in all formats, bound for ingestion into the high-density storage vaults. The crowded room appears chaotic to the untrained eye, but streamlined workflows govern the progress of each project along the way.

Jimmy Gonzalez drives a lift through the stacks in a storage facility vault.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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As we reach the receiving area, things appear even more chaotic, as there is just as much material leaving the facility for projects such as large-scale digitization as there is coming into the facility for the first time.

As the tour continues through the vaults, my feet get colder and colder due to the preservation storage conditions there, which are held at 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 30 percent relative humidity. I talk faster as I get colder, but the visitors don’t seem to mind as they take photographs trying to get a sense of scale of the facility.

The Oak Street Library Facility provides temperature and humidity-controlled storage for items, primarily those with low-circulation histories.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

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We walk past cases of maps, blueprints, archival boxes and film, and suddenly the group becomes fascinated – not just by the scale of the shelving itself, but with the contents that are held in the collection. As I am tempted on a daily basis, the focus of the group shifts from large-scale storage to any number of individual treasures that catch the eye, from the X-rays of revolutionary University of Illinois microbiologist Carl R. Woese to the playscripts of “Days of Our Lives.” While every group is different, the enthusiasm of the visitors never fails to remind me of the importance of the access we provide to such a unique, diverse collection.