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Jefferson Stacks aisle with team label. Photograph by Shawn Miller and Beatriz Haspo (2023)

Innovative Tools for Assessing Collections: The Stacks Survey

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The Library of Congress struggles with storage space like any other institution. This blog will highlight the Preservation Directorate’s efforts to create an integrated approach to collection needs assessment and space management for its vast collection. I will underline the design and the implementation of the Space and Emergency Management Survey (SEMS), or as we broadly know, the STACKS SURVEY. This initiative combines space management and collection needs assessment for the General Collections, which comprises of about 22 million books, pamphlets, bound periodicals, and other printed material published after 1801.

In fact, this is the first time that such a large-scale survey for the General Collections is being conducted in the history of LOC and this is truly exciting.

The idea of the survey started in mid-2019 to improve the decision-making process for space and emergency management in collections areas on Capitol Hill. The Director for Preservation tasked me to develop a fast, innovative, and portable survey tool to gather high-level data about the General Collections primarily located in the Jefferson and Adams buildings. And, that the information would serve as a baseline for additional and more detailed preservation actions as needed.

But the Stacks Survey would not be possible without a previous space management project that I carried out some years ago: The Stacks Numbering Project. You can check my previous blog: Teamwork as its best: the Stacks Numbering Project, for more details. In summary, we numbered every aisle, every side and every section of the entire Jefferson and Adams stacks and in addition, updated all floor maps, and created digital flood maps with the numbering system and other changes made to the buildings after their construction. So, now, when you are in the stacks, you look up and know your exact location – by aisle, side, and section. We also found out we have almost 95,000 sections in both buildings. These maps alone are a great achievement in itself and constitute an important asset for LOC. And they became vital for implementation of the numbering and collections and emergency management activities. And as one of the results, the Stacks Survey is gathering data from each one of the sections.

Stack numbering results. Photographs Beatriz Haspo (2016)

The Stacks Survey was designed to be a fast, innovative, and portable survey tool to gather high-level data for each section (one upright shelving unit) of the General Collection stacks, including Area Studies in the Jefferson and Adams buildings.

One of the most exciting steps for me during the design phase was to identify the minimum number of questions needed to gain the most possible data in key areas in a short time, aiming to spend a maximum of 3-4 minutes per section. In other words, to be completed in months, not years.

I also wanted to make the survey very inclusive keeping in mind that anyone would be able to complete the questions and a preservation background would NOT be required.

The data collection focuses on inventory, environmental risks, condition, and space issues that includes capturing images of sections and recording overflow trucks and books on the floor. Section by section.

Stacks survey questions framework. Photograph Beatriz Haspo (2023).

We use Surface tablets and barcodes scanners for portability and speed, and also to capture images of the sections. And below is a view of the survey on the tablet. Very clean and simple. Questions are pre-populated with a drop-down list for choice. Most of the questions are YES or NO, or percentages. You just touch the screen. Also, each question has a “help section” tutorial incorporated into the tablet with definitions and response protocol with images to help the surveyors. The reports will provide all sorts of data on each question and combination of data. My goal is that the information will be very quick to generate and easy to interpret the data.

I want to emphasize that the survey is not an “item-level” survey. In other words, we are not removing books to check their condition. This would take many decades. Rather it is a section-level” survey, where we gather information about what we can see when looking at the section supported by pictures of each section.

Tablet view of questions. Photographs Beatriz Haspo (2023).

The logistics for implementing such a massive survey are enormous. Half of the Preservation Directorate staff, nearly 100 people, are participating in data gathering. Each person dedicates one 90-minute shift per week to the project. Meaning, a particular day and time of the week, every week. There are 4 shifts per day, every day of the week with a maximum of 6 people per shift. The Stacks Survey Team is divided into 6 tablets teams – with their names programmed into it and each tablet team compiles data from a different deck. Math aside, this means that we are gathering data from 6 different decks simultaneously 4 times a day, every day of the week.

The survey includes at least 2, but usually 3 pictures of each section, also capturing the section number and books on the floor. The images are automatically stored with the data of each section after being taken. This image database will be very helpful for further data analysis and reports. More importantly, it constitutes the first ever comprehensive visualization of each section of the General Collections in the history of LOC. I am just thrilled about that as well.

We started data collection on March 2023. As the project manager, I have been responsible for engineering the entire logistics of the project and overseeing the implementation. Because I personally believe that the success of any project is deeply connected to the success of each person involved with it, my goal has been to make sure that every person on the survey team has all the support and the tools they need to be successful in their tasks. Therefore, I conducted a total of 40 training sessions for the 96 people training groups of up to 6 people for 90 minutes, 4 shifts a day, every day of the week for 2 weeks. And yes, I did talk a lot! The in-person training in the stacks especially helped those who have never been to the stacks before. So, this was also a new added experience for some of the staff. Special accommodation for some people required an additional level of communication and coordination with other Library departments. The apron that I purchased for the project is a hit.

Training sessions. Photograph Beatriz Haspo (2023).

The training sessions proved to be an important part for the successful implementation of the project.  These sessions fostered new acquaintances between staff of all Preservation Directorate Divisions and created teams-buddies, or “Stacks busters”. It also gave me the opportunity to interact with every member of the survey team and assist them on a one-on-one basis.  They felt proud and confident (empowered) to do the survey. Personally, the feedback and kind words that I received during the training sessions (about the training method, the survey itself or the stack numbering) constituted one of the most rewarding experiences of my career of almost 25 years at the Library of Congress.

Training sessions in the stacks. (left). Image of the team and aprons (right). Photograph Beatriz Haspo (2023)

Now that we are around six months into the survey, I wanted to share some data collected and some impressions with you. We have surveyed over 25,000 sections and taken over 80,000 images. We can start mapping areas that need immediate attention for collections management, preservation, and emergency actions – section-by-section.

The data being collected is significant for the Directorate and the Library. At the same time and on a personal level, one of my most rewarding findings is the validation that anyone can do it and the survey is quick, as most of the team has been completing the survey in 4 minutes or less per section.

I have been conducting many tours and presentations about the Stacks Survey in the last months. This model is starting to resonate in other areas of the Library that hope to implement similar tools for their collections.

As I continue to manage and provide all the support possible for this project, I am inspired every day by the staff working on the Stacks Survey for their continued commitment and engagement to the project.

The Stacks Survey is an important initiative that will provide information to support preservation actions for years to come. It is the result of successful teamwork involving Preservation Directorate leadership & staff, IT team, interns and volunteers and other departments at the Library of Congress.

I look forward to sharing more of the results and future actions with you. Stay tuned!

Jefferson Stacks aisle with team label. Photograph by Shawn Miller and Beatriz Haspo (2023)

 

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Comments (4)

  1. Awesome!
    A template for collections worldwide. Present this project ( or get a team member to ) to the AIC ( American Institute for conservation )
    Amazing!

    • Thanks Terry. Looking forward to sharing with the AIC community.

  2. This is a great case study for a stacks survey! Thanks for sharing. What software does your team use for data collection?

    • Thank you for your comment. We are using Access to collect the data on the tablet.

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