Winning the Space Race

Expanding collections and services with shared depositories

September 23, 2014


Academic libraries face immutable space problems. On most campuses, library shelf space is finite and even shrinking. Gone are the days when a proactive library director could argue successfully for a library expansion to house more books.

Still, the books keep coming: Even with increasing numbers of e-journals and ebooks, US college and university libraries collect more than 25 million print volumes every year, on top of the more than 1.1 billion print items already held, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics’ Academic Libraries 2004. Where are these books getting shelved?

To alleviate the space crunch, libraries have increasingly turned to library depositories. Libraries originally used high-density depositories primarily for less-used materials. In the age of learning commons and makerspaces, many of them now find that high-density shelving can no longer be restricted to older or less-used materials. Some send substantial numbers of newly acquired volumes directly to an offsite facility, often because they are relatively arcane materials that are still of value to the research collection.

Witness the almost 62,000-square-foot Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, which features a domed reading room at ground level, beneath which is a high-density facility capable of holding 3.5 million books, retrievable by robotic arm within minutes of a patron’s online request. “We believe that having materials close by enhances their use,” said Judith Nadler, the now-retired university librarian who oversaw the Mansueto Library’s conceptualization and construction since 2006, in a May 18, 2011, University of Chicago news feature, “Mansueto Library Creates New Space for Thought.” She described the design as “a bold statement of importance, of centrality.”

Of course, most campuses do not have the luxury of available land on which to build on-campus repositories. Libraries are also joining together to share high-density facilities to support their print collections in mutually agreed upon nearby locations. Of the estimated 75 North American high-density facilities, at least 15 are shared by multiple libraries. Lorcan Dempsey, vice president and chief strategist of OCLC Research, predicted in his blog July 5, 2013, blog post, “In seven years’ time, say, a large part of the existing print collection in libraries will have moved into shared management, with a reduced local footprint. The opportunity costs of locally managing large print collections which release progressively less value into research and learning are becoming too pressing for this not to happen.”

By far the largest shared depository, the Research and Collections Preservation Consortium (ReCAP), which opened in 2002, holds more than 11.5 million volumes owned by Columbia University, the New York Public Library, and Princeton University. The consortium began ​as a way to share the costs of providing optimal preservation conditions for the partners’ extensive research collections, according to Executive Director Jacob Nadal. He touts a benefit of the arrangement: “a preservation environment five times better than conventional library stacks for a fraction of the cost.” ReCAP provides hundreds of daily physical and digital deliveries to partner libraries and readers around the world.

The story of offsite shelving

In the 1980s, the University of California system and Harvard University opened specialized library depositories. Since then, high-density shelving facilities have become a standard option for academic libraries worldwide. The approximately 75 North American facilities currently house more than 80 million volumes and in many cases hold a significant share of a library’s total collection.

These types of facilities are designed to save construction and operating costs by housing a very large number of volumes in the smallest possible floor space. Most of these follow the “Harvard model” in which volumes are grouped by size and held in trays on shelving that can be 30 feet high or more, and are often located off campus to take advantage of less expensive land. Grouping volumes by size allows each shelf to be filled to its maximum capacity with no wasted space above or below, and no reserved space as is required in traditional library shelves arranged by call number, which must allow space for new volumes to be inserted. Typically a Harvard-model facility will contain multiple long rows of shelving in a single large room (or “module”) for a total of 10,000–15,000 surface square feet (which can hold as many as 2 million volumes).

Facilities can be expanded by appending new modules. Each module has environmental systems and controls to maintain low temperature, humidity, and lighting to better preserve the books, usually in better conditions than the campus library provides. Facility staff operate mechanized order pickers that can traverse the rows and rise even to the highest shelf for adding new trays or retrieving requested volumes. These facilities also include a separate processing area for staff to accession new holdings into the facility (sizing, traying, updating inventory control database or library catalog) and to fulfill requests (charging to library or end-user, packing for delivery or scanning for electronic delivery).

Automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) are also in frequent use. Developed first at California State University, Northridge, and now at many others, these facilities are designed to house a high percentage of the library’s volumes on campus and to provide retrieval and delivery by a robotic mechanism. Like the Harvard model, ASRS depositories use long and high shelving rows designed for shelving density and not for human browsing. In the ASRS, the robotic mechanism is connected to the library’s online catalog and request system: When a book is requested, the system automatically dispatches the appropriate arm to retrieve the bin where it is being held. From that point a staff member extracts the requested book from the bin to deliver it to the waiting requester.

Library depositories offer a trade-off between cost-effective shelving for ever-growing collections and more difficult access to the volumes held there. To compensate for reduced availability of volumes in a high-density facility, libraries need to ensure that the volumes can be discovered through metadata and delivered to the requester in a timely manner. On-campus ASRS facilities are designed to deliver volumes within minutes. Offsite facilities frequently offer onsite reading rooms, scanned delivery of articles or chapters, and daily or more frequent delivery of physical volumes.

Most often regional shared depositories have been developed by existing library consortia or university systems.

  • The University of California’s Northern and Southern Regional Library facilities were developed at the direction of the Regents of the University of California to house materials for the universities in the north and south of the state.
  • Five Colleges Inc. in Massachusetts, an educational consortium established in 1965, established its shared Library Depository by agreement with Amherst College to use part of Amherst’s modified Harvard-model facility housed in a former Strategic Air Command bunker.
  • The Minnesota Library Access Center, a program of Minitex, houses member library collections in an underground cavern built beneath the main library of the University of Minnesota during library construction.
  • Ohio boasts five Harvard-model facilities originally mandated by the state legislature and now administered by OhioLINK.
  • The Washington (D.C.) Research Library Consortium (WRLC) operates a Harvard-model Shared Collections Center for its nine member libraries.

In other cases, partner libraries forge new relationships specifically to achieve a shared library depository.

  • PASCAL (the Preservation and Access Service Center for Colorado Academic Libraries) is shared among the University of Colorado, Denver Health Sciences Library, Auraria Library, and the University of Colorado, Boulder.
  • The University of Texas system and Texas A&M University opened a joint library depository in 2013 designed to hold more than 1 million volumes.
  • The Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University are planning a new shared library depository, expected to be operational in late 2015.

Libraries that share facilities define that policy in a number of different ways. Sometimes libraries offer a landlord/tenant arrangement such as the agreement between Duke University, which owns the facility, and neighboring North Carolina libraries in the Research Triangle. At ReCAP, partners share only the physical space and operations staff, with volumes separated into different rows that are reserved for individual owners like a condo. At WRLC (which also operates a shared library catalog across its nine members), holdings of all members are fully intermixed throughout the shared facility. The Five Colleges Library Depository in Massachusetts offers subscriptions to its journal titles held at the facility, so that its subscribers are, in a way, also sharing the facility.

Sharing collections across systems

Regardless of the original arrangement, libraries that share offsite shelving facilities almost inevitably begin to discuss sharing the holdings themselves. Even high-density facilities ultimately face space constraints and often enact policies to restrict duplication. Plans to prohibit duplicates in a shared facility often lead to discussion of shared ownership or stewardship, because partner libraries that are prevented from relocating volumes to the shared facility by the no-duplicates policy need the assurance that they will have access to the offsite volume already sent there by another library.

That was the case for WRLC’s Bruce Hulse, director of information services. He says that during planning for expanding the shared facility, library partners discussed “if we were sharing our individual collections or creating a shared collection.” If sharing individual collections, then each partner would have the ability to make a series of separate choices, which, in the end, might not make the best use of the shared facility. But viewing the book repository’s contents as a single shared collection would require true collaboration, he says, and could produce the best collection for the group as a whole. “The resulting decision to share stewardship went a long way toward convincing university administrators to provide financial support for facility expansion,” Hulse says.

While ReCAP historically has emphasized support for individual collections at the shared facility, ReCAP partners are also considering some major changes. Says ReCAP Executive Director Nadal, “Our next major initiative is to turn ReCAP from a shared operation into a shared collection, giving each partner full access to more than 3 million additional items and providing a foundation for collaboration on major collecting efforts in the years ahead.”

The collaboration between Georgia Tech and Emory University in Atlanta “aims to develop a shared collection between our two institutions, both retrospectively and prospectively,” says Catherine Murray-Rust, Georgia Tech’s vice provost for learning excellence and dean of libraries. “One of the ways to get there is to start by solving our space problems collaboratively through a shared facility.”

The relationship between Georgia Tech and Emory has led to one of the more dramatic collection decisions: In the first case of its kind, Georgia Tech plans to relocate almost all of its print collection to the new shared facility (a decision that may be facilitated by the fact that Georgia Tech’s academic programs emphasize technical and engineering fields that are well-supported by digital resources).

To provide access to its mostly offsite print collection, Georgia Tech will institute twice-daily deliveries of print volumes from the new facility about six miles away, plus on-request emergency deliveries, electronic delivery, and an onsite reading room. Even more important, Murray-Rust says, is that delivery service from the shared facility will be integrated with delivery between all Emory and Georgia Tech library locations, so Georgia Tech faculty and students can have easier access to all materials available through this partnership. As Murray-Rust puts it, the goal is “to make up with service for what some faculty believe is taken away.”

Shared library facilities sometimes form the basis of “shared print programs,” an evolving term used to describe agreements in which libraries explicitly commit to retain certain holdings over the long term, either on campus or in a library depository. The goal of these programs is to ensure preservation of certain defined holdings, which allows other partners to deselect their copies if necessary. Several shared library facilities have enacted retention agreements for their holdings, including the “persistence policy” at the University of California Regional Library Facilities and a commitment at WRLC to retain print journal volumes held at the shared facility until at least 2035. The new facility at Colby College will enable Colby to retain hundreds of thousands of monographs as part of the Maine Shared Collections Strategy. Indiana University’s Auxiliary Library Facility, formerly used only for IU’s collections, now serves as the central repository for the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) Shared Print Repository of journal volumes shared by 10 CIC member libraries.

Appeasing concerns

For libraries operating high-density facilities or shared print programs, one key issue is how to appease the concerns of faculty and students who see books being removed from the stacks. Librarians view relocating books or relying on other collections as an unfortunate necessity, given the continuing acquisition of new volumes that must be housed within a finite amount of campus book space. Faculty and other researchers view those steps as unnecessarily draconian solutions that reduce the value of local collections. Perhaps the best way to bring these two world views together is to agree on a shared goal: Neither librarians nor researchers want libraries to stop acquiring new books because they have run out of space, and both want researchers to find and use any volume they want, wherever it is located.

In the meantime, high-density library shelving facilities will probably continue to grow—both new facilities and expansions of existing ones. Some libraries will be able to make the case that an individual facility is required, while more frequently they may join with others to divvy up the costs of a shared facility.

And as libraries increasingly consider shared print agreements—spreading responsibility for collections among multiple libraries—existing and new library depositories will play an important role as the primary sites for long-term retention and delivery of vital print volumes.

LIZANNE PAYNE is a consultant working with academic libraries and consortia to plan for shared print collections. She has served as executive director of the Washington (D.C.) Research Library Consortium (WRLC), where she managed development of WRLC’s shared library systems and shared library depository. Email: