Storing books in libraries

I love libraries. And I love librarians. They are the most knowledgeable and helpful of people as a class. They seem to get a real kick out of finding stuff for you.

Libraries have the problem of what to do about the increasing numbers of books and journals that they own. This problem is particularly acute for university libraries that do not, as a rule, throw old books and journals away or sell them because they are resources for research that a faculty member or student may need at some point, however rarely. In my own research, I have been very grateful to my university library because it has rare books on obscure topics published over a century ago that I suspect that are almost never checked out. And yet, there they are, just waiting for me.

One solution is to take books and documents that are rarely checked out and send them to an underground storage facility that may be some distance away in some climate controlled environment to prevent deterioration. If a library patron needs such a book, they have to make a request and the book is brought back to the library to check out. The library at Case Western Reserve University uses an outfit known as Iron Mountain for this purpose. It is pretty efficient in that it usually takes just a day or two to get a book from deep storage.

Another solution is to pack the bookshelves more densely. In the CWRU library, the racks of shelves are packed tightly almost touching each other. There is space to walk between them only every ten racks or so. But the racks are on tracks operated electrically and if you want to get between any two of them, you press a button and the shelves move to create a space using up other open spaces to do so. This system too works pretty well. (When it was first set up, my thought was that it looked like the infamous trash compactor in the first Star Wars film and I wondered if it were possible for someone to get squeezed by racks closing in when they were between them. There are of course sensors to prevent that from happening and no accidents have occurred. Not yet, anyway.)

The system used by North Carolina State University takes this close packing to an even greater extreme, with a machine being used to meet any specific book request. The scale of the whole setup looks like something out of a science-fiction film, with 10,000 bins containing over a million books. Interestingly, the system allows books to be stored anywhere in its vast vaults and not according to the sequence of its classification numbers. This enables denser packing by allowing storing books of similar size together. Its specific location in a particular bin and position within a bin is recorded in a computer.

My first thought was that if a book was accidentally misplaced, it would be impossible to find. Of course, librarians are aware of this problem and have addressed it. It turns out that the machine does not make mistakes and that the library does an audit each year of every book it has to make sure that it is in the recorded location.

Of course, if there is a power outage or the machine breaks down, you are utterly stuck until it is repaired. Another downside to this system is that it loses the element of serendipity. There have been many times when I have looked for a particular book on the shelves by its classification number and come across adjacent books of interest in the same field. That will no longer happen when a machine gets your book for you.

This loss of serendipitous discoveries has already happened with electronic journals. Nowadays one goes straight to the article of interest and downloads it. Not browsing through a physical journal means that one does not stumble upon articles of interest other than the one you were looking for. But the quickness and ease with which one can get a journal article from wherever you are more than compensates for that particular loss. Just recently I needed an article from an old journal that was not in the electronic databases. I had to actually go to the university library, take down a massive old bound journal from the shelves and then take it to the scanner to make a pdf copy and email it to myself. All that took quite a bit of time. Holding an actual bound journal in my hands and flipping the pages seemed so strange, like going back in time.

In the case of machine book retrieval, since you have to physically go to the library to get the book, the advantages to the user of the NCSU system are not clear. If many people are requesting books, this system may take longer than you going to the shelves and finding it yourself. The benefits seem more to the university in its ability to store more books and keep track of them better and that definitely compensates for the extra wait time.


  1. avalus says

    Impressive, thank you for sharing this! In Brady Harans Objectivity Series on Youtube, a system that resembles the CWRU, used by the Royal Society, appears quite often when they discuss old books.

    Concerning serendipitous discoveries: Yes I can certainly feel you. So much is published and there just is not enough time to browse it all.
    Old journals are interesting in their own terms. During studies I had to copy articles from french chemist Grignard and I found the experince to handle a nearly 100 year old journal very humbling. (Also, my french lessons finaly had a use!)

  2. blf says

    Many yonks ago I got the chance to spend multiple weeks to, among other things, browse the stacks at the University of Chicago library (the main facility, the Regenstein Library, built on the site of Stagg Field, which housed the squash court where Enrico Fermi built the world’s first manmade nuclear reactor (none of books seemed to glow in the dark)). Perhaps the main downside was this was in a Chicago summer; however, the library was climate-controlled — another motivation to spend much time inside there!

    I made numerous serendipitous discoveries (most of the ones I now recall are connected to ancient middle eastern civilizations). This was made entirely possible by being able to freely wander about the enormous stacks of one of the world’s largest libraries.

  3. wsierichs says

    I have benefited multiple times over the years by looking up one book -- usually on a historical subject I’m researching -- and finding books relevant to that subject on the same shelf or adjacent shelves. Sometimes just wandering in the general area of a subject turns up gems. I’ve done a lot of research on Christianity’s history and browsing a section devoted to historical writings on Christianity has been quite valuable. One book I ran across and did not know about was published in 1864. Titled “The Church and the Rebellion,” it was written by a pro-Union, anti-slavery (but not, he assures readers, an abolitionist) theologian, R.L. Stanton, who said many people he knew blamed the “churches” for secessionism and the Civil War. He documented that with numerous quotes from Southern church publications, and then documented that secessionists (who were almost all Christians) overwhelmingly cited slavery as the reason. Stanton was basically trying a variant of the “no true Scotsman” argument by saying the churches had the scriptural arguments for their actions all wrong, but he nonetheless showed plainly how deeply Christianity was involved in slavery and secessionism.

  4. Owlmirror says

    One book I ran across and did not know about was published in 1864. Titled “The Church and the Rebellion,” it was written by a pro-Union, anti-slavery (but not, he assures readers, an abolitionist) theologian, R.L. Stanton,

    . . . and it’s in the Internet Archive. Nifty.

  5. says

    Good morning Mano,

    Interestingly, the system allows books to be stored anywhere in its vast vaults and not according to the sequence of its classification numbers.

    Back in the ’90s when I first set up my home office, I had to decide how to store about 60 cubic feet or so of files.

    At the time I had a journalism intern who, in exchange for a half day of filing, I taught the basic of being a freelance writer. We quickly came up against the “how do I file this” problem?

    I thought about the challenge for a couple of days and came up with the solution I’ve used ever since.

    I keep a hanging file next to my desk and when I come across a reference or paper I think I might want to revisit, I associate several keywords with the paper and note them in a Word file. A typical entry might read like:

    Baratunde Thurston How To Be Black Jordan Klepper The Opposition Humor

    I date each hanging file using a YEAR MONTH DAY system—today would be 180307—and add a letter (A, B, C…) at the end if I have more than one file that day. Each file contains 10 items and the files go in my old-school four drawer cabinet in descending date order.

    My intern was able to quickly file the papers (and I’ve been able to maintain the files for more than 20 years now) with little effort.

    When we can keyword search any file, order becomes meaningless and a waste of time.



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