Saving Space at the National Art Library

Word & Image
March 16, 2016

This year the National Art Library has begun a major project to increase the space in its crypt store, and as an apprentice arriving last October, I have been able to be a part of the work.

Work began in October, meaning the crypt store has been unavailable to readers for four months. But, with the crypt reopening on Tuesday 2nd February, the work is almost complete. This is a short explanation of how I and my colleagues have spent the last 16 weeks increasing its capacity.

Firstly, new shelving racks have been fitted which are 10 cm narrower, allowing another four racks to be squeezed in. This equates to 230 linear metres. Alongside this we have consolidated the existing collection which has saved at least another 120 metres. To allow space for the new racking, all the books had to be moved to temporary shelving. The rolling racks took one week to be installed and since then, an enormous effort has gone into re-shelving all the books.

What is consolidation?

Consolidation is the process of rearranging books to fit the space more efficiently. This means shelving books in terms of height rather than subject.

Consolidation: before and after.
An example of a bookshelf, before and after consolidation © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Space saving is not the only benefit to consolidation; it can help to protect the collection too. If a tall book is shelved next to one half its size the taller book begins to bow. Similarly, you should shelve deep books next to one another, so that they support each other and prevent their covers from splaying out at the ends. Another way we can protect the collection is to ensure books are not packed too tightly on to the shelf; this can cause books to be crushed and their bindings will break. By removing very thin books and placing them in boxes this protects the most vulnerable.

Whilst moving books we have come across many that need conservation, we are then able to tie these with ribbon, or put protective covers over their bindings. More effectively, we can find a new home for them which is more suitable.

All this takes time and, most importantly, we must always consider how we can move so many books without damaging the collection. We do feel enough of the collection is now accessible that we can reopen the crypt, however there are still some areas that are not quite complete. Our hard work will have improved our service to the readers: now the books are in a logical order and retrieving requested books is much easier.

By applying this method in the crypt store we have managed to fit an extra 15,000 books. I hope to complete the majority of this project before my year here is over, but there is a lot to do. I never realised, as a librarian how much of your day is spent moving books and you quickly become very adept at setting shelves. Although, if you like solving puzzles, it can be quite enjoyable; especially the satisfaction you get when all the books fit perfectly.


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