Debate at N.Y. Public Library Raises Question: Can Off-Site Storage Work for Researchers?

Princeton U.

Recap can hold about 10 million volumes. Some 9.6 million are there now, but storage space for an additional 10 to 13 million books is in the works.
April 22, 2012

Nothing disturbs print-centric researchers like the idea of kicking books out of a library to make room for computers. The New York Public Library set off a fierce debate recently with its plans for a major reorganization. The proposed overhaul, known as the Central Library Plan, includes selling two midtown branches and moving many of the three million books now housed under the main reading room at 42nd Street to a remote-storage facility in New Jersey. The library shares the facility in a consortium arrangement, called Recap, with Columbia and Princeton Universities.

Anthony T. Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton University, summed up researchers' anxiety in a commentary published in the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, this month. "My stomach hurts when I think about NYPL, the first great library I ever worked in, turned into a vast Internet cafe where people can read the same Google Books, body parts and all, that they could access at home or Starbucks," he wrote.

The library promises that materials sent to Recap will be safely stored and quickly accessible—usually within 24 hours—to patrons who request them. Critics say that remote storage doesn't work so well in practice, and that the wrong message is sent by taking books out of the heart of the library.

Many major research libraries have been using remote storage for years, and their experiences show that initial heat can wear off once patrons better understand how the system works.

Plenty of researchers now operate comfortably in a hybrid print-digital environment. But they still love their paper books and journals, especially in the humanities. Many historic collections exist only in print form anyway. The idea of carting books and journals off to suburban storage bunkers makes some patrons nervous.

"I'm generally wary of the whole concept," says Katharina Volk, a professor and chair of classics at Columbia. She understands the pressures on library facilities, especially at an urban institution like hers. Still, "I don't like it when it happens," she says. "Oftentimes librarians don't necessarily know which materials are important" for professors and students in specific disciplines.

On a practical level, though, Ms. Volk has had few problems with her university's system, which she uses often. "It's reasonably fast and efficient," she says. She hasn't had a problem with missing materials or delivery delays. "There are probably more issues with the electronic catalog in general," she says, noting that it sometimes contains mistakes or inaccurately describes multivolume holdings.

It helps that materials stored off-site aren't banished for good. When Ms. Volk discovered that a major journal in her field had been moved to Recap, the subject librarian had it moved back "as soon as I complained," she says.

Consultation is essential, in her view. Library administrators need to explain the rationale behind their decisions; faculty members need to get more involved. "Everybody understands the space issue," Ms. Volk says. Beyond that, though, "many faculty are just uninterested in the issues of the library, which is really a shame."

Guessing Game

Columbia has about four million volumes at Recap, says Robert A. Wolven, associate university librarian for bibliographic services and collection development. They are generally in little demand. "About 2 percent of what we have stored there will be retrieved in any one year," he says. "We're selecting things that we know, based on past experience, will be rarely used."

As Ms. Volk discovered, sometimes the library guesses wrong. "We will send something that shouldn't have gone, and we'll hear about it and bring it back," Mr. Wolven says. For instance, the library learned that historians wanted on-site access to some business-history materials that hadn't been used much by the business school.

The issues raised by remote storage, he says, fall into three categories: misconceptions about how the process works, problems with cataloging or retrieving specific items, and philosophical objections. Now that the system has been up and running for a while and faculty members have seen it in action, the first two problems "are pretty rare at this point," Mr. Wolven says. Addressing the philosophical objections can be trickier.

A lot of the dismay over the New York Public Library's plans centers on the stacks at the central facility, on 42nd Street. That's not an issue at Columbia. "The central stacks at Butler are still there," Mr. Wolven says, referring to the main undergraduate library. At some facilities, though, "we've taken books out and created new kinds of space," including laboratories and offices for faculty members.

Call it the Internet-cafe problem. The challenge becomes convincing patrons that "it's not a coffee shop, it's a technology center," he says.

For the most part, though, "people understand that we need to make room for new collections," he says. "And that's a key—that we're still building our collections." The bigger the collection, the greater the amount of storage it's going to need, on campus or off.

In significant ways, the New York Public Library is a unique case: a major research library that doubles as a heavily used public library. It occupies some of the priciest, most crowded real estate in the world. It answers not only to its patrons and to the city's elected officials but also to major donors who want a say in how it's run.

Academic-research libraries have their own administrations and budgets to contend with, but they generally serve populations of faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduates. Their stacks tend to be open to those patrons, not closed like those of the New York Public Library. Like the NYPL, though, they feel pressure to make the most of limited space and money, to make sure they can add new material while keeping older collections safe in perpetuity, and to provide the facilities that patrons need to get their work done.

How Recap Works

Three times a day—at 7:30 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m.—the Recap facility, in Princeton, N.J., processes requests from the three institutions that store materials there. All requested items must be retrieved, packed up, and on the loading dock ready to go by 4 p.m. daily, according to Eileen M. Henthorne, the executive director. She downplays the concerns one hears in the New York debate about delivery delays. "We're standing up to our end of the bargain getting materials into the libraries' hands the next day," she says. What happens after that is the libraries' responsibility.

On the day The Chronicle spoke with Ms. Henthorne, the Recap staff had pulled 458 volumes for the 7:30 a.m. run. The facility handles about 700 to 1,000 requests a day, she says, with the highest volume at exam time. Recap also processes about 50 requests a day for electronic delivery of journal articles. Those go straight to the requester's in box.

Until people understand how the facility works, the idea of remote storage does make them nervous. "It seems like it's a black hole to some people, and it really isn't," Ms. Henthorne says.

Unlike most campus stacks, Recap stores materials by size, not by subject area. It has 6-, 10-, 12-, 16-, 18-, and 20-inch shelves, to accommodate the varied items. Shelving units stand 30 feet high, in aisles 240 feet long. "You can get a lot of material in there," Ms. Henthorne says.

But even a high-density facility like Recap can't add material forever. Opened in January 2002, its current facility can hold about 10 million volumes. More than 9.6 million volumes live there now.

Ms. Henthorne expects to receive about 450,000 more volumes from Princeton and Columbia this year. Then there's whatever the New York Public ships out to New Jersey.

The solution? Build more storage space. "We're in the process of a huge construction project," Ms. Henthorne says. Beginning in June 2013, two storage modules now in the works will be able to house an additional 10 to 13 million volumes.

Preserving Paper

For librarians, remote-storage facilities like Recap offer another great advantage: They're designed to preserve material as well as store it. Recap keeps everything at 55 degrees, with 35-percent relative humidity. And it accepts only materials that are in good shape or stored in appropriate containers.

Yale University's Library Shelving Facility, not far from the campus, houses 5.4 million items, says its director, Michael V. DiMassa. "Off-campus shelving often affords by far the best environment for physical collections, including paper," he told The Chronicle via e-mail.

Susan Gibbons, Yale's university librarian, mentions a recent assessment of preservation issues facing the university's East Asia Library. The assessors reckoned that the deterioration of materials likely to occur over a half-century in regular library space could be stretched to nearly 300 years in a climate-controlled remote-storage facility. "So if you're really concerned about those materials, the LSF is by far the best place for them to be," Ms. Gibbons says.

Remote-storage facilities are also far more secure than open stacks. "If it's at LSF, chances are it's safe and it's sitting on the shelf waiting for you," she says. "We can't make that claim about all the collections at Yale."

Putting some collections in remote storage has helped the library in another, unexpected way, says Ms. Gibbons. Items can't be transferred to the storage facility until they're properly cataloged—some for the first time. That has led the university to put more resources into cataloging than it would have otherwise. "It was a completely unintended consequence, but we can see it," she says.

When they hear about library reorganizations, print lovers tend to bemoan the loss of serendipitous browsing in open stacks. Patrons can't wander through remote high-density shelving. But a new kind of digital browsing may be taking shape. It's counterintuitive, but certain collections become more visible and accessible when they are moved to remote storage.

Yale's collection of government documents, for instance, became much better cataloged when it moved out of the historic Mudd Library and into storage. "All of a sudden we see this spike of interest in the collection," Ms. Gibbons says. "That's the only way a storage facility works. You have to identify the item before you transfer it."