Glimpse of a Huge Library Offsite Facility

Ever wondered where the really big libraries store their collections? The answer is, increasingly, somewhere else.

Offsite storage sounds cumbersome—after all, you’d have to build, buy, or rent the building, possibly convert the structure, and bring in shelving or other storage containers before you can even think about moving the physical items themselves—but it might actually be the most practical solution, especially in case of old institutions built in high-density urban areas. Also, apart from library science, collections care, digitizing, and preservation, setting up a remote storage facility requires knowledge of logistics and warehousing.

Here’s a chance to peek into the Bodleian Book Storage Facility near Swindon, UK. The BSF holds over 12 million items (books, maps, manuscripts, microfilms, periodicals and newspapers) in a warehouse constructed specifically for the library, and at this writing has been in operation for ten years.

Bodleian describes the facility capacity on their website for completed projects thus:

“The Book Storage Facility consists of an eleven-metre tall solid shelving system comprising 31 Very Narrow Aisles (VNA), with seven different bay type configurations to accommodate the different sizes of books and other materials. It also has a capacity equivalent to 153 miles (230 kilometres) of shelf space and a five level multi-tier structure for map storage. To guarantee the books’ preservation for the long-term, volumes are stored in 745,000 bar-coded and specially designed storage trays and boxes that are of archival standard. Floor area of the warehouse equates to 1.6 football pitches, although the high-density shelving provides shelf surface area equivalent to 16.5 football pitches.”

 

Bodleian BSF Shelving

Below is an excerpt from the post written by Daniel Haynes (haynesd) for the Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees blog:

“The BSF is huge. Its shelves are 11 metres high and over 70 metres long. Before the automatic lights kick in, the narrow aisles seem to converge into darkness. We wore high-visibility jackets to alert staff driving the book-retrieval vehicles to our presence. A cross between a cherry-picker and a forklift, these vehicles are configured to fit exactly between the shelves, allowing staff to retrieve an impressive average of one book per minute.”

Haynes also lists some of the challenges involved:

“Low-use books kept in storage might suddenly become grow in demand and require relocation ‘on-site’, or vice-versa;

Renovation or building work might require temporary storage (in fact, the BSF currently holds several thousand volumes from Cambridge), so could your facility accommodate for that?

Existing space can always be reconfigured to meet new challenges and needs;

Since an off-site facility means books always moving around, could it also offer research facilities? Some libraries are considering specialised reading rooms to avoid transit for fragile or valuable material.”

As I’ve has to wait for a book to arrive from offsite storage to a library for me, I appreciated this glimpse into the backend operations of large library warehouses.

Image via Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees blog

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

How We Lost the Library of Alexandria

There are a couple of persistent myths floating around about how the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. One says that it was burned down by Julius Caesar in the first century BCE, the other that it was destroyed by Christians in the fourth century CE. Both of these stories are wrong. That’s not what happened to the Library. The actual history is instructive, especially now.

The story begins with the foundation of the Library itself. After the death of Alexander the Great, his followers fell into a fifty-year struggle for control of his empire. When the dust settled, three major successor states founded by Alexander’s generals controlled most of the eastern Mediterranean and the old Persian Empire: the descendants of Antigonus in Macedonia, the descendants of Seleucus in Syria and Mesopotamia, and the descendants of Ptolemy in Egypt. Other, smaller, states, some of them also led by former officers of Alexander’s army, filled the edges and the gaps in between the Antigonid, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic kingdoms.

Ptolemy and his dynasty ruled from Alexandria, the new city founded at the westernmost mouth of the Nile by Alexander during his campaign. The Ptolemies and their court made up a small Greco-Macedonian elite ruling over a vast and ancient land whose people had a strong sense of cultural identity and a long history of resistance to foreign rule. The Ptolemies faced two major problems in ruling their kingdom: competing against the other successor states, and asserting control over the native population of Egypt.

A large part of the challenge in both cases came down to questions of culture. The Ptolemies needed to attract skilled administrators and mercenary soldiers to staff their bureaucracy and enforce their rule, but they were competing with all the other successor kingdoms who wanted the same people for the same reasons. One way of drawing desirable recruits to Alexandria was to demonstrate the richness and refinement of the Ptolemaic court. At the same time, maintaining order in Egypt meant reaching some degree of accommodation with members of the native elite who could keep the peasants in line. To Egyptian nobles who were proud of their own history and culture, the Ptolemies had to show that they were worthy partners who could live up to the standards of culture and sophistication Egyptians expected from their kings.

The Ptolemies’ propaganda approached these challenges in many different ways, but the Library was one important part of their cultural program. Under royal patronage, the Library amassed the largest collection of literary works in Greek assembled anywhere in the Mediterranean. In doing so, it projected the Ptolemies’ cultural sophistication in the common language of the eastern Mediterranean world. It was one of the institutions that made the city of Alexandria noteworthy and demonstrated the Ptolemaic kings’ power and wealth.

The Library of Alexandria was not created as a benevolent or altruistic center of knowledge. It was as much a part of power politics as the king’s mercenary army, and it could be as ruthless in its operations. Ships arriving in Alexandria were reportedly ransacked for any texts the Library might be lacking. The Library borrowed the official texts of winning dramas from the Athenian state archives, then kept the originals and returned cheap copies. The collection was only accessible by royal permission; it was not a place for the public.

Maintaining such a large collection required a dedicated staff of both specialist curators and laborers. Adding new texts to the collection took a lot of work to prepare the papyrus scrolls on which they were recorded and house them safely, but just maintaining the collection was a major job in itself. Papyrus scrolls are not permanent; they break down over time, even in the best conditions. Every text in the Library had to be periodically recopied as the old scrolls decayed. All of this work was funded by the Ptolemaic kings, for whom the Library was an important prop to their power.

In the mid-first century BCE, Julius Caesar fought a campaign in Alexandria against the reigning king Ptolemy XIV in support of his sister Cleopatra, who would go on to rule as the last Ptolemaic monarch. During the fighting, Caesar’s troops set fire to some of the ships in the port. The fire spread to some dockside buildings, including warehouses that held papyrus intended for the Library. The exact extent of the fire is unclear. While some ancient sources report that the Library itself suffered damage, it is clear that the most of the collection was unharmed, and the loss was largely of materials, not finished texts.

Decades later, after Cleopatra was killed and Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire, however, the Library went into decline. The later Ptolemaic kings had been less enthusiastic in their support of the Library than the earlier kings had been, and by the first century BCE the Library was already a diminished institution. With no Ptolemaic dynasty to prop up, it no longer served a purpose. Some Roman emperors showed an interest in the Library, but most had no desire to keep supporting an institution that rivaled their own propaganda works in Rome. Without money to pay for upkeep and repairs, to pay the salaries of librarians and workers, the Library of Alexandria faded away. Support from the local elite kept some of the collection intact, some part of which remained active as a much smaller, provincial version of its former self through the third century CE.

Just how long this reduced version of the Library continued on is unclear. The third century was a time of widespread violence and unrest in the Roman world, and Alexandria had always been a rowdy city prone to riots. The growing community of Christians in Alexandria sometimes participated in these upheavals, but they were far from the only ones. In one famous incident, an attack by pagans sparked a Christian counterattack which wrecked a Neoplatonist school, but there is no record that any books were kept there. Whatever was left of the collection may well have suffered in the violence of the times, but by then the Library-with-a-capital-L was a thing of the distant past.

There is a lesson for us in the end of the Library of Alexandria, but it is not one about the brutishness of Caesar or the violence of early Christians. What doomed the Library was not some act of willful destruction but the slow decay that comes on when there is not enough money to keep basic operations going. In these days when we all find our budgets stretched tight, it is important to remember how much the cultural institutions we depend on also depend on us.

As many people have noted recently, the covid-19 pandemic isn’t the apocalypse we expected. We like to imagine that great things end in cataclysm, not in the slow grinding down of underfunded institutions. We prefer the bang to the whimper. But just like the Library of Alexandria, the establishments we rely on—be they local libraries, theater companies, independent bookstores, niche comics publishers, or anything else—will not be destroyed by invaders or violent mobs. They will wear away by inertia and neglect. Now is the time to show your support, in whatever ways you can manage, to the things that make your life brighter, richer, and fuller.

Image: A modern artist’s interpretation of the Library of Alexandria via Wikimedia (19th c.; engraving; by O. Von Corven)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Quotes: Reading Books for Free Didn’t Kill the Publishing Business

By this writing, after the government relaxed some of the covid-19 restrictions / recommendations, some of my native country Finland’s libraries have already opened, and others are preparing to open.

My Finland Kirjasto in Helsinki

“I love a library. The idea of reading books for free didn’t kill the publishing business; on the contrary, it created nations of literate and passionate readers. Shared interests and the impulse to create.”

– David Byrne, musician and author

Judging by my family, friends, and social media bubble, the openings are very welcome, even though at this stage you can’t really spend time in a library yet (they’re only open for picking up materials, not for lounging or programming). Visiting the library is also at the top of my list of things to do after the Stay at Home Advisory is no more!

Stories are such a huge part of our lives, and we like to talk about them regardless of the shape they’re in. What remains to be seen is how moving increasingly towards digital media will affect physical libraries.

Quote attributed to David Byrne at The Guardian, July 17, 2015; found via American Libraries November / December 2015, p. 28.

Image by Eppu Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Spring 2019: Tolkien Exhibition at The Morgan in NYC

The Morgan Library and Museum is going to have a Tolkien exhibition.

Morgan Library The Hobbit Tolkien Exhibition 2019

From the exhibit description:

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth celebrates the man and his creation. The exhibition will be the most extensive public display of original Tolkien material for several generations. Drawn from the collections of the Tolkien Archive at the Bodleian Library (Oxford), Marquette University Libraries (Milwaukee), the Morgan, and private lenders, the exhibition will include family photographs and memorabilia, Tolkien’s original illustrations, maps, draft manuscripts, and designs related to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.”

They’ve also made an introductory video:

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by The Morgan Library & Museum on YouTube

Related program includes a lecture, gallery talks, workshops, and family programming, among others. The exihibit is open January 25 through May 12, 2019. More information at The Morgan website.

Found via Locus.

Image cropped from the cover illustration for The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, via The Morgan

WoW’s Dalaran Cupola Library vs. Real Round Libraries

I was browsing my WoW screencaps for something entirely different when my eye fell on two shots from the Dalaran inscription trainer’s place. (This is in the Legion version of Dalaran.) Both are actually from inside the book-filled cupola: the first looks up towards the impossibly high ceiling, the second down towards the trainers’ room floor.

WoW Dalaran Inscription Tr Book Dome2 Sm

WoW Dalaran Inscription Tr Book Dome Sm

Neat, right? Well, I wondered whether anyone’s actually done anything similar for real and hit the Internet. And I found some!

Stockholm Public Library in Stockholm, Sweden

The functionalist stadsbibliotek was designed by Gunnar Asplund and opened in 1928.

Flickr Marcus Hansson Stockholm Public Library

 

Round Reading Room in the Maughan Library, King’s College London in London, UK

The Round Reading Room of Maughan Library, the main university library of King’s College London, can be found on the Strand Campus.

Wikimedia Kings College London Maughan Lib Round Reading Room Sm

 

Picton Reading Room in Liverpool, UK

The Picton Reading Room, completed in 1879, is now part of the Liverpool Central Library.

Flickr Terry Kearney Liverpool Central Library Picton Reading Room

 

A home in Toronto, Ontario

Designed by Katherine Newman and Peter Cebulak, this two-level library is in a private residence in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Architectural Digest Toronto Ontario Home

 

The Octagon Room, Islamic Studies Library at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada

The library is situated in the neo-Gothic Morrice Hall building that previously housed the Presbyterian College of Montreal from 1871 to 1961.

McGill Islamic Studies Library Klaus Fiedler Sm

 

None of them are exactly the same as the game library cupola, of course: apart from the the scale of the rooms, the scale and direction of the bookcases might differ. But apparently it isn’t terribly far-fetched to make a round multi-storey library and pack it chock-full. 😀

Images: Stockholm Public Library by Marcus Hansson on Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Round Reading Room of Maughan Library by Colin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0). Picton Reading Room by Terry Kearney on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Toronto home by Tony Soluri via Architectural Digest. Islamic Studies Library at McGill by Klaus Fiedler, McGill Library.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

National Museums Scotland Online

National Museums Scotland have made their collections available online.

First, you can tour the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh through Google street view. Around 20,000 objects on display at the permanent galleries can be seen this way.

Google Arts National Museums Scotland Screencap

In addition, over 1,000 objects from the National Museums have been added to the Google Arts & Culture online collection. They are arranged in groups that work much like online photo albums. Clicking on an image opens a detailed view of that item with additional information.

Four separate museums form the National Museums Scotland: in Edinburgh, the National Museum of Scotland and the National War Museum, plus the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian and the National Museum of Rural Life in East Kilbride.

This is so great! I’ve been lucky enough to be able to visit the National Museum of Scotland in person, but that was years ago and I couldn’t get to everything I wanted to see. Now I can patch those holes in my not-quite-a-bucket-list. 🙂

Image: screencap from National Museums Scotland Google Arts & Culture webpage

Quotes: Comic Books Should Be in Every Library

Stan Lee, the creator of several superheroes, opines on libraries:

“A library should be a way for a child—for anybody—to get the sort of reading that he or she wants, and hopefully that will benefit them. Not all stories in comic books are great; some may seem silly or ridiculous or a waste of time. But the youngster has to be able to read the book. And for that reason, comic books should be in every library.”

– Stan Lee

Did he just describe comic books as a gateway drug? 🙂

From an interview with Stan Lee for the American Library Association by Mariam Pera, found in American Libraries May 2014, p. 16.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: First-Name Basis with Your Information Professional

“If you are on a first-name basis with your information professional, you are one of the smartest people in your company.

“If you are on a first-name basis with your information professional, you value your time.

“If you are on a first-name basis with your information professional, you are saving your company money.

“If you are on a first-name basis with your information professional, you value accurate, timely information.

“If you are on a first-name basis with your information professional, you know the importance of information and where to get the most bang for your buck.”

– Gloria Zamora

Gloria Zamora, past President for the Special Libraries Association, counterargues the claim that knowing your librarian by name means spending too much time in the library. Humbug, I say, to that erroneous argument! Not to mention balderdash, baloney, bunk, drivel, hogwash, malarkey, and poppycock. 🙂

Zamora, Gloria. “On a First-Name Basis with Value.” Information Outlook, vol. 13, no. 07 (October/November 2009), p. 3.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Undercover Work as a Librarian

“Sometimes undercover work as a Librarian involved posing as a rich socialite, and the Librarian in question got to stay at expensive hotels and country houses. All while wearing appropriately high fashion and dining off haute cuisine, probably on gold-edged plates. At other times, it involved spending months building an identity as a hard-working menial, sleeping in attics, wearing plain woollen dress, and eating the same food as the [boarding school] boys.”

– Genevieve Cogman: The Invisible Library

That’s a different kind of library gig all right!

Cogman, Genevieve. The Invisible Library. New York, NY: Roc, 2016, p 2.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

The Oldest Active Library in the World

The library attached to al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university (alternate western spellings include Al Karaouin and Al Quaraouiyine, among others) in Fez, Morocco, is not just the oldest active library in the world, it’s also exceptionally beautiful.

TheNewArab al-Qarawiyyin Library Courtyard 479

Al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 by Fatima Al Fihri. The architecture of the university reflects various past styles and ruling dynasties. The decorated interiors include calligraphic designs on the walls, ceramic patterns on the floors, and wooden carvings on the ceilings.

TEDcom al-Qarawiyyin Main Reading Room aziza_chaouni_img_2096

From 2012 to 2016, the library was completely renovated. The restoration was lead by architect Aziza Chaouni. She describes the starting point for her project at TED.com:

“When I first visited, I was shocked at the state of the place.

“In rooms containing precious manuscripts dating back to the 7th century, the temperature and moisture were uncontrolled, and there were cracks in the ceiling. […]

“Throughout the years, the library underwent many rehabilitations, but it still suffered from major structural problems, a lack of insulation, and infrastructural deficiencies like a blocked drainage system, broken tiles, cracked wood beams, exposed electric wires, and so on.”

TEDcom al-Qarawiyyin Entrance Main Reading Room aziza_chaouni_img_2100

One of Chaouni’s leading principles was respect to its authenticity. Her restoration team preserved and salvaged what they could, but when it wasn’t possible, features and details were created from scratch. This included using local materials and construction systems, like furniture by local craftsmen who used native wood. Says Chaouni:

“There has to be a fine balance between keeping the original spaces, addressing the needs of current users, including students, researchers and visitors, and integrating new sustainable technologies — solar panels, water collection for garden irrigation, and so on.”

TheBigStory al-Qarawiyyin Fountain Samia Ezzarrouki 460x

Currently a part of Morocco’s state university system, the library is now open to the public in addition to historians and students.

(Incidentally, the university’s famous alumni include the 16th-century Andalusian adventurer known as Leo Africanus, whose book Description of Africa was considered the most authoritative source for northern Africa until the beginning of European exploration and expansion in the African continent.)

More photos at The New Arab, TED.com, The Big Story, Tor.com and BookRiot.

Images: Courtyard via TheNewArab; main reading room and entrance to main reading room by Aziza Chaouni via TED.com; fountain by Samia Errazzouki via The Big Story.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?