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Moving Collections Off-site: What to Keep in Mind

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This blog highlights some of the topics presented by Cathy Martyniak, Chief of the Collections Management Division (CMD), during the 2022 Preservation Week in April emphasizing what to keep in mind when moving collections off-site.

Preservation Week is an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) and aims to highlight the preservation work done by collecting institutions across the country, such as libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, among others. Every year the Preservation Directorate of the Library of Congress participates in this event with a series of webinars featuring some of the preservation work done by our four divisions. In 2022 the webinars covered a wide range of topics such as non-invasive examination techniques (Preservation Research and Testing Division); the history of one of the earliest forms of photography, the daguerreotype (Conservation Division); an overview of the wide variety of reformatting and digitization projects (Preservation Services Division, former Preservation Reformatting Division); some of the complexities of moving collections to offsite storage (Collections Management Division);and culminating with a presentation by the Director for Preservation about fiscal and organization sustainability for preservation programs. These presentations will soon be available on our webpage.

So, let’s dive into Cathy’s presentation and some of the tips she shared about identifying the location for the offsite facility, what to send, staff involvement, shelving schemas, transportation of materials, retrievals, refiles and governance policies.

While not every institution may be looking to store collections offsite at this time, space storage challenges are inevitable. On the other hand, some institutions already may have materials offsite. In both cases, there are some key elements to consider when planning to find an offsite facility and transfer collections.

One of the first decisions that management has to take is to select the location for the storage facility. This is not a simple decision because it impacts many of the logistical operations of transferring and managing the collections as well as providing access of the material stored offsite to users. Another decision is whether to use a retrofitted facility, which may present some challenges and limitations, depending how old the space is – or invest in a new facility. Also, the actual location is important to minimize risks to the collections, i.e., avoiding areas close to river and/or streams that may flood.

Environmental stability is very important for the preservation of collections. So, having a heating ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system becomes critical to control temperature and relative humidity throughout the year. Not to mention what fire suppression system to choose from – depending on the nature of the material stored in the area – and if one wants to take advantage of height to store more materials within a storage area. Tall ceilings are very good for that purpose and storing collections by size may optimize the storage space area even more. This is known as high-density-storage model and was first utilized by Harvard University in the 80s. One can never forget to include pest control to avoid unwanted bugs, mice, and other crawling creatures that damage library materials. Security features, such as fencing, alarms, keypad controls, guards, among others, are additional things to consider.

Not less important is the workspace for staff, as well as parking and loading dock for trucks (small and large) and the technological features that the space needs to have, such as WiFi, portability for data management devices, computers, alarms, to name a few.

Panoramic view inside Library of Congress Collections Offsite Storage facility at Fort Meade, MD. Detailed view of Module #6. Photograph by Shawn Miller (8/16/2021)

Another important point to consider is the selection of materials to move offsite. For this task Cathy  encouraged the audience to work with staff and possibly even your user community to help guide the selection process. And added: “sometimes, higher level administration does not have the same information as the folks on the front lines do about what collections are heavily used. In addition, being open and honest about the need to move collections offsite is key to making sure the selection process does not cause any consternation”. While selection criteria are determined by each institution according to the mission, possible selections may include low use material, items that have electronic equivalents, items with clear records retention schedule or unprocessed collections, among others. Adding to that, take into consideration what cataloguing or finding aid systems will be in place for offsite materials to allow for request and retrieval for patrons. Having an accurate catalog system generates trust of staff and users in the offsite facility and how the new space benefits the collection.

So many pieces to this puzzle, right? Managing an offsite facility is indeed a complex task. And to make this all work, staff is by far one of the most important components. One needs to consider the various roles staff play during different phases of project. For instance, during the initial load of collections into the space, which is physically demanding, the institution may consider different options. For a small organization, it could be an all-hands-on deck situation. Some folks will be packing materials back at the main building while others are setting up shelving. Other institutions may hire a library moving company to help. In both situations, the loading in phase is a great time to clean materials and remove any dust or dirt using high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum cleaners.

Maintaining the facility should be everyone’s responsibility. Checking for floors leaks, plumbing problems, too hot or too damp spots and making frequent inspections of the storage area is a good preventive practice. Hopefully, if the entire new facility is not filled with the initial load there will be space for new deposits. So, recording protocols and lessons learned will be helpful to improve the process and make things easier each time.

As mentioned, it is physically demanding to work at offsite storage facilities. There is a lot of bending, lifting and sometimes working under cold temperatures. Or staff may need to drive a forklift or use a pallet jack.  It is not for the faint of heart. As a result, position descriptions may need to be revised and even have extra skills added to accommodate specific staff activities in offsite storage facilities. In addition, because staff safety is key, security measures may include outdoor lighting, cell phones, or having periodic staffing if no daily staff is available at the facility.

Marcus Toler, placing the first containers inside Module #6. Photograph by Shawn Miller (8/16/2021)

Another key element in preparing for the offsite facility is thinking through how to make the best use of the space and shelving. The institution may consider options, such as shelving by topic, by collection number, by size, or a combination of these. This decision will impact the tracking system and inventory management software needed to retrieve and reshelve items successfully. As mentioned, the storage capacity improves when using tall ceilings and consequently tall shelves. In this case, steel shelves, ladders or order pickers (forklifts) will be essential to retrieve and reshelve materials, always considering staff safety.

And talking about retrieving, this is another huge part of the initial planning efforts. After all, the goal is to make collections accessible for the patrons. So, some questions may need to be address, such as how often will staff go to the facility to pick up items? How will patrons be notified? How will staff at the facility receive a request? What type of document delivery system could be implemented to avoid transporting items back-and-forth? Subsequently, there should be a workflow to refile (or reshelve) the items returned. Getting them back to their spot accurately and in a timely manner will help maintain the trust that staff and users have in the facility.

Since most damage to materials happens during moving, transportation becomes a critical part of offsite storage logistics. Materials must be packed carefully, not too tight, not too lose, keeping the items from sliding around during transport. Using foam in the bottom of tubs or totes may also help to prevent damage. Extra valuable items may require unique transportation and additional insurance. At the same time, inside the facility, pallet jacks and/or forklifts may be needed for large collections and high shelves.

Uploading materials inside Module #3 using forklift and metal carts. Photograph by Beatriz Haspo (2009)

Other considerations involve optimizing resources through collaborations with other institutions on a state or regional level. This includes thinking about how long the items will be kept in the facility or limiting the number of copies. Additional good practices involve keeping the community informed about the materials moving offsite and receiving feedback from staff and patrons about the process.

And no matter what phase of the process, communication, communication, communication should be the number one priority.

So, I hope these tips for moving collections offsite are helpful and look forward to hearing your comments and future plans in this regard.

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


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