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Getting Cranky at the Law Library

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Once in a while we come across something unusual in the Law Library of Congress.  Generally these items are from a bygone era, when things were more hands-on.  Curiously, today’s object is from one of the few times when the Law Library was a little more high-tech than it is now.

Law Library’s motorized shelving, circa 1981 [Photo by Skip Swinson].
When the Law Library moved to the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, the collection space came with the latest in motorized compact shelving.

It was great!

Users would merely push buttons on either side of the open shelves and then push a green “Run” button where they wanted the new opening to be, stand back, and watch all those ranges of volumes chug along on a chain-driven system.

What could be better?

As with most mechanized objects, occasionally there were breakdowns.  The older the system got, the more breakdowns occurred. And with 59.5 miles of shelving, even a small percentage of broken shelving was too much.

Enter the dreaded crank.

Photo by Betty Lupinacci

Former Stacks Services Supervisor Janish Anderson preparing to crank open broken shelving, circa 1983 [Photo by Skip Swinson].
Weighing in at approximately 4 ½ feet, 6 pounds, this odd looking, metal, snake-like pole fitted on to the bottom bolts of the broken shelving like a socket wrench which you then cranked in a large arcing motion to move the offending shelves.

Owing to the shallowness of the bolts and the long handle of the crank, the mechanism frequently fell off during the procedure and either hit the ground with a loud bang or hit one’s foot followed by an even louder yelp (hence the “dreaded” descriptor above).

Fortunately over the years, the Library has seen fit to go retro, first by refitting the old motorized stacks with large hand cranks. More recently, the Library is beginning to replace the old shelving with brand new, manual, compact shelving.

Who would have thought that something as seemingly old-fashioned as hand-cranking would be better than an automated system!


  1. Glad to see that John Henry can still beat the steam drill! Carl

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