In cold storage: IU’s massive auxiliary book collection is handled with care
By Jon Blau
A box of papers waits in a room chilled to 50 degrees, its lid covering proof of the 13 to 14 hours Kate Cruikshank spent making sense of them all.
The political papers of former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh didn’t come with a “table of contents,” but Cruikshank, an archivist at Indiana University’s Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility, pulls the lid off the box to show the order she has brought to the senator’s correspondence. She reworked more than 800 Bayh boxes, the first on a shelf closest to a dimly lit center walkway, the last 80 yards down a darkening alley of metal stacks.
There are six to seven boxes purely devoted to letters Bayh received from constituents about a possible amendment to the U.S. Constitution after the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade.
The archives of Bayh, U.S. Reps. Lee Hamilton and Frank McCloskey and U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and the personal correspondence of former IU President Herman B Wells are but a part of a hoard of treasures being stored at the auxiliary library facility, “ALF” for short. More than a decade of modernization and reorganization of space at campus libraries has filled the ALF with more than 2.8 million books alone, on shelves standing about 32 feet tall.
Therein lies a claustrophobe’s nightmare. Only 4 feet separates one metal stack from the next. Sean Frew drives the lift that squeezes between them, pulling out boxes to pick obscure titles, such as “The Moths of America, North of Mexico,” “Pioneer Cabinet Makers of Cooperstown” and “The Jews in China: Their Synagogue, Their Scriptures, Their History.”
The stacks are filled with thousands of white boxes full of books and papers, sorted by cover size, identified by small stickers with barcodes. Books that are stored here, a facility off of North Range Road 1.5 miles to the northeast of the Herman Wells Library, are deemed low-use but high-value. Films are also stored here, piled in metal canisters on the shelves.
IU President Michael McRobbie announced the push to “digitize” film and video and audio recordings during his “State of the University” speech last week, but the contents of the ALF come from a previous effort to modernize. Vaughn Nuest, the ALF’s manager, remembers a time when the Wells Library was overstuffed with books, stacks seemingly on the verge of colliding with one another and volumes overflowing onto nearby carts.
As new volumes are printed and spaces are repurposed by libraries around campus, about 300,000 old books come to the ALF for storage each year. While librarians look around their spaces and see the effects of the digital age, the ALF is proof that new books are still being printed and old books are being saved.
“If this is the last one available anywhere, it’s not measured with a price,” Nuest said of a rare book. “If we don’t preserve it, we wouldn’t have it.”
Books end up in the ALF if they haven’t been checked out in five years or only 10 times while in circulation at IU; they are then reviewed by a librarian, who can decide if they stay on campus or are shipped off for storage.
The library has always had storage, Nuest said, just not a “showplace” building like the ALF, which university officials first starting lobbying its trustees for in 1989. It took more than a decade to sell the building, and the first module was completed in 2002, but Nuest has no problem showing off the facility and its mammoth collection now.
Above all else, Nuest boasts that the ALF is one of about 170 such buildings at universities across the country, but it is the only one that offers same-day delivery from its stacks to locations on campus six days a week. A library user can search the university’s online catalog, click on any item before noon and have it delivered in about four hours.
When a book order is received, Frew heads to the stacks with his lift, finds the box associated with the book and gets it out for delivery. On the trip back to the ALF, books are brought to vacuuming tables that remove dust from the covers and sometimes from individual pages. Many of the books are wrapped in special covers so they “won’t be touched by human hands again,” Nuest said -- that is, of course, if they aren’t checked out. In actuality, Nuest said about 33,000 items are delivered from the ALF to campus per year. More popular are digital scans of journals printed prior to 1923, where copyright laws aren’t an issue; in more than a decade, Nuest said, more than 1 million scans have been sent via email to library users’ computers.
Since books aren’t sorted by subject, but by size, there are two people who check each other’s work when a book comes to the ALF, is put in a box and given a bar code. In 11 years, Nuest said, the ALF staff has never had a book they couldn’t find among its six-figure collection.
They may be out of sight for most library users, but these books are handled with care.
The floor is “super flat,” meaning no square inch can deviate in height from the next — Nuest said only two contractors in the country are certified to do a super flat floor, and one was in Louisville, Ky. The stacks are anchored with cement, meaning the librarian’s nightmare, of one unit falling into another, won’t happen.
There are special pressurized fire sprinklers behind each stack, too, with water loaded at the tip to be sprayed instantaneously in the event of a fire; the sprinklers -- which hang like hoses from the ceiling and down to the stacks’ rows -- detect heat and only activate the hose behind a specific box of books.
The room is always 50 degrees and 32 percent humidity, optimal conditions for preservation, and if those numbers shift a half-percent, Nuest said a “911” call is made to the physical plant department to fix it.
And the ALF collection is only expected to grow. Sherri Michaels, head of collection management at IU, says conservative estimates have every inch of space occupied and 6 million books in place in eight years. The ALF also has piles of film reels, about 80,000, with features ranging from World War II propaganda films to a 1950s university film titled “Your Daughter at IU,” all candidates for digitization under the plan McRobbie announced last week.
But politicians’ archives, especially, encapsulate the changes archivists are finding as the world moves digital. Cruikshank, the ALF’s political program specialist, is in a building surrounded by books, but she often recalls a story about how U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle’s political papers ended up at South Dakota State University.
They arrived in a large tractor trailer -- on three compact computer hard drives.
Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.