A Cool Collective Success! Preserving Collections Offsite.

As the Library prepares to open another module inside its Collections Storage Facility in Maryland, I can’t help but reflect on how we got here, almost 20 years after the very first book was placed on a shelf of the first of many storage modules to come.

The initial question that comes to mind is why did the Library need an offsite storage facility in the first place? So, let me tell you a brief background story.

During the mid-90s the Library was experiencing space challenges to properly accommodate millions of items received every year. Even now, about 10,000 items enter the collections daily in many formats and sizes, which requires a lot of space. There was no additional space available to construct another building on Capitol Hill where our three main buildings are located: the Jefferson, the Adams, and the Madison buildings. We wanted to construct a state-of-the-art facility for long-term preservation of the collections. To find additional place to store, preserve, and protect our collections, we started looking to find land, so we could build from scratch rather than to retrofit existing buildings.

So, in 1995 the Library received 100 acres (400,000 m2) of land inside the Fort George G. Meade military base in Maryland located approximately 45 minutes from Capitol Hill. The strip of land was ideal to build a series of collection storage modules in phases–up to 13 modules according to the master plan. Library staff researched the best models in place at that time to ensure both preservation as well as maximization of storage capacity for collections. This group selected a design that was developed by Harvard in the 1980s and used successfully by many other libraries since then, combining storage by size with high-bay shelves, known as high-density storage. Thus, the construction of Module 1 began in the year 2000 to accommodate 1.6 million books.

Except for Module 1, which I personally call “the baby module” with 8,500 sq ft, all subsequent modules are larger with 12,000 sq ft of space for collections and with shelves up to 30 feet high. Each module is designed to have a cool, controlled, and stable temperature and relative humidity all year long to meet the necessary long-term preservation requirements. In fact, Preservation Directorate staff have been directly involved in the project requirements, construction, testing of materials, preparation of collections, transfer, space management, and collections management of all modules at Fort Meade.

                 A view inside Module 1 and a person at the far end of the aisle.
                                  Photograph by Beatriz Haspo, 2009

Another question that comes to mind is what actually is inside those modules? Well, the collections could not be more diverse and complex! It all started with book format collections, mainly from the General Collections, that are stored by size inside ten different container types in Modules 1 and 2. However, by the time we approached planning of Modules 3 and 4, there was a need to adapt the design to accommodate Special Format Collections, such as prints, drawings, maps, globes, three-dimensional material, rugs, manuscripts, rare books, photographs, microfilm, and negatives, among others.

As a result, we developed a new and larger processing area, the addition of 13,600 map drawers, construction of four cold rooms to meet preservation requirements of film-based material, and the design of special transportation carts to transfer safely various types of containers. Not only that, a new and innovative space management system, called planograph, was created to allow efficient space distribution of around 32 million items inside thousands of different types of containers to be placed on more than 35,000 shelves.

Does this sound daunting and scary? Believe me, it really was, especially because no one had ever developed something quite like this and it was my job to create a precise map, showing exactly where each storage box containing each separate item would be placed. A giant puzzle, if you like puzzles. It took me almost two years to complete the planograph for Modules 3, 4, and cold rooms. My former boss and Chief of the Collections Management Division, Steve Herman (retired), used to say that “this was a work of love.” Indeed, it was. And it continues to be, because, since this concept proved to be highly successful during the transfer, it has been adopted ever since for subsequent modules.

The challenge of transferring special collections offsite also presented preservation staff with the opportunity to shine at its best using expertise and creativity to design custom-made containers to both preserve and protect diverse collections during transfer and inside the module, while guiding and training staff on safe care and handling.

As the years progressed since the first item was placed on the shelf offsite and more modules have been built, there have been many lessons learned from all stakeholders. We work closely with the Architect of the Capitol, the entity responsible for the construction of the modules, to make sure that the learned lessons are incorporated in each new module-to-be. We have also shared our experience and knowledge in building construction, preparing and transferring collections offsite with many institutions both nationally and internationally. And continue to do so.

To date, there are over 55 million items stored offsite in Module 1 (opened in 2002), Module 2 (opened in 2005), Modules 3, 4 and cold rooms (opened in 2009), Module 5 (opened in 2017), and Module 6 to open July 2021. Our retrieval rate is 100%. This means that thanks to a very thorough inventory, transfer, and space planning process and many levels of checks, we can account for every one of those items inside the modules when requested.

                                                                        View inside Module 4                                                                                  Left: collections from Prints and Photographs Division. Right: collections from Serials & Government Publication Division.  Photograph by Beatriz B.M. Haspo, 2011.

Having been personally involved with this project for two decades, I confess that I still get emotional every time we cut the ribbon for another completed module. It is indeed a massive undertaking by hundreds of people from the Library of Congress and other governmental agencies.

So, if you ask me what I would consider the greatest secret behind this successful mega operation for the last 20 years and more, I will tell you: the PEOPLE. From the visionary leadership at the Library of Congress, to our curators, managers, staff, contractors, interns, and volunteers involved in this venture. Their engagement and dedication continue to make this project one of the most important initiatives undertaken by the Library of Congress in the 200+year history of preserving knowledge for future generations.

Without a doubt, a cool collective success!

So, after this brief view about our offsite Collections Storage Facility, I hope you are eager to learn more about it. There are many interesting stories to tell. And as we start thinking about future modules (Module 7 design is completed, and Modules 8 and 9 process is starting) new ideas and suggestions are being explored. This is a living project. So, stay tuned.

                                 General view Library of Congress Collections Storage Facility
                                                     Photograph: Architect of the Capitol, 2020

Learn More:

Read an article,
“Expanded Cold Storage Space Opens for Special Formats at Fort Meade,”
in the Library of Congress Information Bulletin.

Read an article,

Preserving, Storing, Retrieving – Ft. Meade Module Construction Continues” in the Library of Congress Information Bulletin.

Learn about the challenges posed and solutions found when Stabilizing Special Collections for High-Density Storage from the Preservation Directorate’s Web Site.

Get the Law Library’s perspective on their experience moving some of the law collections in Fort Meade Delivers, or Finding a Needle in this Haystack Couldn’t be Easier, an In Custodia Legis blog post.

From the “Behind the Scenes” series of posts by the Prints & Photographs Division, Behind the Scenes: Collections on the Move.

One Comment

  1. Michelle Novak
    June 17, 2021 at 7:58 pm

    Absolutely amazing! Thank you for providing us with an overview of all the hard work that supports preservation and access.

    [And it’s much more organized and efficient than what it looked like in Indiana Jones’ day. :D]

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