The Library of Congress is considered the world’s largest public library, containing more than 800 miles of shelving in three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and in off-site storage facilities. Collections are distributed in many different storage areas. The nearly 24 million books, pamphlets, bound periodicals, and other printed material from the General Collections are located primarily in the Jefferson and Adams buildings. They require space, organization and specific locations for reference and effective monitoring purposes for preservation and access. This blog will take you on a journey of a special behind-the-scenes project carried out by the Collections Management Division to map the storage location areas of the General Collections to improve collections management, security, access, and emergency preparedness and response.
The layout of the Jefferson and Adams buildings storage areas are arranged in a complex design, due to additions made on these floors at various stages in the past. In the Jefferson Building for example, there are twelve levels (or “decks”) distributed across four floors. A crosswalk connects nine of them. The John Adams Building consists of 12 floors with collections, each one divided into the North and the South side. The storage areas are generally described by the building name, the floor (or “deck) number, and the side of the building (north or south) as reference points. For example, Adams building deck 4 south (summarized as LA-4S), or Jefferson building deck 18 (summarized as LJ-18).
This may seem sufficient at first. However, when one adds the size of each area and the number of books and aisles it contains, it becomes a real challenge for collections management. For example, the Adams building has around 180 miles of shelving. Each floor accommodates approximately 1 million volumes distributed in 13 acres of shelf space, which is equivalent to almost 10 football fields per floor. In addition, each side (North and South) has 70 aisles (or rows) and 48 sections (one upright shelving unit) with multiple shelves in each aisle.
Math aside, it is a very large space. Huge, indeed! Can you picture yourself walking among so many aisles and sections? How about trying to locate collection items or report the location of incidents, such as leaks, in such enormous area?
The Collections Management Division (CMD) is responsible for maintaining and serving the General Collections while ensuring, through appropriate security and preservation measures, that the collection will be available for future generations. With that in mind, in 2005 CMD’s Collections Officer (CO) initiated a process to improve the overall location of the materials in the stacks, by numbering the main aisles of all collection’s storage areas within the Adams and Jefferson buildings. During the next ten years, this numbering system proved time-efficient for staff during space management, retrieval, or refiling projects, increasing the staff’s productivity. More importantly, the new numbering system proved vital for security, optimizing emergency preparedness and response time.
However, there was room for improvements. So much so, that from 2015 to 2016 the CO implemented a more comprehensive numbering system, known as the Stack Numbering Project, based upon previous successful space management concepts introduced at the Library off-site storage facilities. For 18 months, a team of 12 people worked on the gigantic effort to remove any previous labels, apply new ones, execute quality control measures and perform statistical analysis, while photo-documenting findings.
In fact, the project started by reviewing and updating the existing floors maps and the configuration of collection areas (or stacks) for each floor. Such revision was necessary because the original maps replicated the planned storage area at the time of construction of the buildings (1897 for the Jefferson and 1939 for the Adams buildings). As in any building that age, some additions or changes happened over time for various reasons and were not reflected accurately in the available floor maps. In addition, the original floor maps did not have any numbering to identify the aisles. Therefore, the team created updated digital maps with numbering and a color-coded scheme for added structures, such as air ducts, additional bookshelves shelves, or shelving units removed, or construction areas where collections were no longer stored, among others.
Beside the main aisles, location numbers were added to each side of the aisle (left or right) as well as to each section. Because of the magnitude of the spaces, the team labeled floor by floor. To optimize time, labels were printed in sets, templates created for one deck at a time and standard tools used to mark the application spot; thus ensuring consistent placement of labels. They were applied with a squeegee tool to remove air bubbles. We numbered each side of the aisle in the posts and each section on the ceiling, using preservation quality labels, which we know are very hard to remove or to peel off.
In some decks, rows, and sections, the team encountered uncommon obstacles, such as a pipe that runs the length of multiple sections where the labels would go or an elevator that disrupts the normal configuration of the deck. In other decks, we found additional shelves installed on the walls and aisles perpendicular to aisles. So, the team updated the all deck maps before the application of the numbering labels.
The final step in the process was to assure the quality of the label placement on each deck. Each aisle, including main aisle and section labels was examined and poorly placed or incorrect labels were fixed. Following the completion of each deck, the team calculated the number of aisles and sections and the number of labels used.
A few things are important to highlight. The logistics of planning and applying an average of 6,000 labels per week required much coordination and communication. It also demanded physical labor, flexibility, time management, and collaboration among many curatorial divisions storing their vast collections in these areas. Teamwork and communication were crucial to ensuring timely completion with 100% accuracy. Adaptability was another critical component, for example, when the team encountered construction projects in some areas requiring us to reassess and adjust techniques and schedule. Finally, several decks contained secured areas in which rare or valuable materials were stored. In order to label the sections in these areas, the Collections Officer communicated and worked together with collections managers of various curatorial divisions and security personnel to devise a schedule and to complete work on these sections in accordance with the proposed schedule. The team capably handled these various challenges and accomplished the goals of the project efficiently, in a timely manner, and in accordance with library protocols and procedures. The stacks were labeled during regular library hours, without inconveniencing library employees and patrons or otherwise affecting the daily operations of staff.
A full account of this statistical data was presented to LOC management, though a few figures are worth noting. We applied almost 310,000 labels and discovered that there are almost 95,000 sections in both buildings, spread across over 3,500 aisles. Not only that, but we also covered almost 800,000 square feet of collection space.
As a result, the Stack Numbering Project improved upon the institution’s system of locating collection materials; thus, benefiting a variety of stakeholders such as collections managers, library technicians, security personnel, and preservation specialists. We received very positive feedback from the curatorial units as well about the impact of the new numbering system for their own collections management. Since the completion of the project, we noticed considerable improvement in emergency response time and book service activities. In addition, the numbering system has been serving as a base for other collections management and preservation initiatives. One of them, currently ongoing, is the Stack and Emergency Management Survey (SEMS), which will be a topic for a future blog. Stay tuned!
The Stack Numbering Project was definitely a fascinating behind-the-scenes collections management initiative. But, of course, I am biased and ultimately very privileged to have had the opportunity to literally walk and get to know every inch of the storage areas for these amazing collections. So, I hope you enjoyed this journey with me.
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