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staff members conduct their test review in several aisles
Preservation staff go through training on Deck 48 for the Stacks Survey. Photo Credit Beatriz Haspo, 2023.

Vacation in the Aisles: My time on the Stacks Survey

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It is very easy to get disconnected from certain aspects of work at the Library of Congress. We are all siloed in our offices and when the work is plentiful, the chances to get out become few. The Processing and Preparation Section (PPS) can be a vital cog within the Library’s machinery, but it is always important to remember where that machinery outputs its product, in the stacks.

A sign hangs in the Library stacks with a dirty handprint over the printed "Please Turn Off Lights"
To Doctor Who fans, this sign would be an omen after the 2008 episode “Silence in the Library,” but to Library staff, it’s a reminder to be energy conscious. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2013

My first extended time visiting the stacks was in 2013 when PPS, then called the Library Binding Section, conducted a review of items that were identified in the Internal Library System (ILS) as At Bindery. This had contributed to errors in book requests as some items were shown as being at the bindery for months on end, if not years, despite only actually being offsite for a single month at most. We worked in teams scouring the shelves for these items and found many of them, and in doing so got to see a side of the Library we were not accustomed to.

An aisle in the Jefferson stacks with a sealed window at the end.
A window that once faced an open-air atrium is now bisected and blocked by storage shelves for thousands of books. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2013.

The stacks in the Thomas Jefferson Building were originally just in the cross pieces between the four atriums in the original building design. As the number of items continued to rise, within 30 years of the building opening, two of those atriums were filled in for book storage. The process of adding stacks and changes to the building were documented in a blog post by Beatriz Haspo in April 2022. With final additions completed in 1934 there now 40 decks within Jefferson, with half of the building holding nearly seven million books today.

Two staff members stand in a library stacks aisle as one trains the other for a survey.
K.F. Shovlin being trained by Beatriz Haspo at the beginning of the Stacks Survey, on Deck 48 of the Jefferson Building. Photo credit: Beatriz Haspo, 2023.

In 2023, several of us in PPS and others throughout the Preservation Directorate were asked to take to the stacks to complete a major endeavor, the Space and Emergency Management Survey, aka, the Stacks Survey. This survey had been introduced in a blog post last year by Beatriz Haspo, and completed the review of the Jefferson Stacks not long after. The survey is currently on pause but has already made significant progress in the John Adams Building.

A wide aisle in the stacks of the Jefferson building
One of the wider aisles in the Jefferson stacks shows the books in excellent condition and perfect order. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023.

I was assigned to Team 7 and worked each Tuesday afternoon for 90 minutes. Armed with a barcode scanner, a tablet loaded with the database questionnaire, a work apron, notepad, and pencil, we were ready for whatever the shelves threw at us. On a good day, I could complete up to 15 shelving units, perhaps reviewing over a thousand books. I would check the condition of the shelves, the items, items that had received preservation treatments, the air ducts, and even the sprinkler heads. The whole process has been extremely thorough. We would work one deck at a time, and then move to another every few weeks, as long as everyone did their part. The team of surveyors could only succeed because of the diligent work done by the stack numbering project completed in 2022.

A temperature gauge on a support beam in the Library stacks
Environmental conditions are important in the stacks as anything abnormal can damage the items. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023.

For those of us in PPS, we spent most of 2023 in a heavy production turnaround period. Every time we finished sorting a truck, preparing a lot for binding, or a quality review, we had to immediately move on to the next. I’ve detailed in previous blog posts about the quality review process, learning languages to improve our production, and entries on specific items that I’ve processed, including work done on telework. Time has been of the essence because of a large backlog that had been created as half of our staff retired since the pandemic. The stacks survey therefore became a getaway, a mini vacation while still on the job.

The stacks in the Adams building with metal trucks parked going down.
The stacks in the Adams Building can be just as cavernous as those in the Jefferson with the added time to get in and out of the building formerly known as “The Annex.” Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023.

I have been an employee of the Library of Congress, specifically in PPS, for seventeen years now. Though I have had several opportunities to work in other offices, I don’t often get to see the fruits of my labor. As I walked these miles of shelves, I can pick out monographs and serials that I personally handled a decade ago or more. In some cases, I can see items I helped shepherd to the shelves with signs of significant use, showing the importance of my effort. On top of that, I get to see certain parts of the Library from a different perspective.

A book truck sits behind a decorative window.
A staging area on a deck in the Jefferson stacks right behind one of the half dome windows of the Main Reading Room. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023.

Typically, the only way we as staff can see these books is to request them as researchers ourselves. I have personally used the collection of the Local History and Genealogy Section extensively over the years. When I was tasked with surveying the deck where many of those books were held, I was able to find even more books with surnames throughout generations of my family. It takes inspiration to search for a book in the online card catalog, but when physically searching the shelves, attention to detail may find you more.

Three images of books in the genealogy section
Sometimes time in the stacks helps you identify items you didn’t know you were looking for, like some of these family histories in the Library’s genealogy collection. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin, 2023

We have much more work to do until this project is complete, and the results we’ve already collected have been promising. As we prepare for the next phase of the survey, I look forward to my weekly respite amongst the shelves. The smell of aging paper and cool storage conditions take me back to my early days spent scouring the shelves of my local library. Once we are done, I will miss this time, but will also know that our findings will help secure these items for generations to come.

To find out more about the Library’s collections and the preservation activities necessary to keep the largest library in the world available, be sure to subscribe to this blog and check back weekly!

Comments

  1. About a million years ago, during college when I worked summers in the literature department of the Cincinnati Public Library, we had to once a week or so go to the stacks with a partner and do inventory. It was peaceful and sort of relaxing but when I would stand up from squatting in front of the lower shelves I would get a head rush. Here at my current library we don’t have those types of hidden stacks, I miss them. I enjoyed your blog.

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