HAMDEN — Of the roughly 12.5 million volumes in Yale’s libraries, approximately 4 million are housed right in the middle of campus, in the lavish Sterling Memorial Library.
Another 3 million or so are three miles away, in a nondescript warehouse here in Hamden.
Aside from library staff, few at Yale have ever been to the decade-old Library Shelving Facility. But LSF was always meant to be more like an unobtrusive waiter than a gaudy architectural marvel. After all, if not for the facility’s 30-foot-high stacks and capacity to hold millions of Yale’s most obscure texts, University officials say, the libraries on campus proper would be overflowing.
But the first rule of LSF is that you do not call it the Library Storage Facility.
“We cringe at the word storage,” Associate University Librarian Danuta Nitecki said on a recent tour of the facility for the News. “This is not like your grandmother’s attic.”
Unless, that is, your grandmother’s attic is equipped with a climate-control system that keeps the temperature at 50 degrees, shelves that are 3 feet deep and forklifts that can hold 2,300 pounds.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Almost every book and document at LSF is available for delivery to any Yale library within 24 hours. Mike DiMassa, the facility’s manager, said around 300 of the 3 million books at LSF are requested each day, and about the same number are returned.
In total, about 3 percent of the off-site collection circulates each year. Books checked out more than two times in a year are returned to the stacks in campus libraries; about 15,000 items have left LSF for campus shelving in the last decade.
That number is fairly low, Nitecki said, in large part because library employees think long and hard before sending any book to Hamden.
Books that circulate infrequently, of course, are the most likely targets for LSF. But even some books that have not been checked out in years remain on stacks in Sterling and other libraries because subject specialists have determined that the books are of high academic value.
Those specialists cannot be too picky, though, because Yale acquires some 250,000 new books each year — requiring around 1.8 miles of traditional shelving — and would not have room for them if not for the off-site facility. So, starting in 1998, books were gradually sent to LSF with the goal of reducing holdings on central campus so that libraries there would have stacks only 80 percent filled.
This took eight years to accomplish, and now the challenge is to move enough books to Hamden each year so that new additions do not overcrowd the stacks of Sterling, Bass and Yale’s other libraries.
Reese Dill, a consultant who helped Nitecki and Yale envision LSF, said in a telephone interview that the facility has allowed for subsequent library renovations to focus on social facilities and not additional shelving.
“This is all about making libraries more user-friendly,” Dill said. “You want to have places with study rooms and cafes and other nice spaces, and you can’t do that unless you have some place else to put your books.”
NO REPLACEMENT FOR THE STACKS
There never would have been room on Yale’s central campus, Dill added, for a building of LSF’s size. And the expense of making such a facility look like the Collegiate Gothic works of James Gamble Rogers 1889 would be prohibitive anyway, he said.
In Hamden, Yale began with just one shelving module. This space was enough for administrative and sorting facilities, as well as six aisles with shelves that soared 30 feet high. Modules have since been added on, with 14 shelves now operational and 14 more on the way. The Yale University Art Gallery is temporarily occupying three modules, but all will eventually revert to the library’s use.
As the library’s collection in Hamden grows, Nitecki said, technology becomes even more critical for LSF. All stored materials are represented on the Library’s online catalog, and they must have barcodes so that Library staff can always know which books are at LSF.
If a book went missing here in Hamden, Nitecki said, it would likely never turn up again. So special barcodes — meant to last 250 years — are applied to books that enter LSF. Yale also cleans each book upon delivery.
At LSF, books are not organized by subject matter or author; they are arranged by height and size so that space is not wasted. Besides, the men and women who retrieve books here are not exactly browsers. They are harnessed into forklifts that can rise high in the air. They have a list of books to retrieve, and they must first navigate to the appropriate aisle and shelf, and then pull down an entire box of books before sifting through that box to find the requested item.
This system of off-site shelving, then, is both hugely inexpensive and hugely expensive. On the one hand, the modules themselves are cheap. But Tom Schneiter, who oversees the Harvard Depository, an early predecessor to LSF, said the labor-intensive process of retrieving books is costly.
That expense, he added, will keep stacks open to students and faculty for the foreseeable future. While some argue that off-site storage is efficient enough to simply eliminate all patron browsing, Schneiter and Nitecki both said the art of, as Nitecki put it, “browsing for that one special book” will likely never be lost.