In 2000, Columbia ran out of space to store its books.
18 years later, on a brisk February morning, I make my way to a massive book warehouse somewhere in New Jersey.
With me is central New Jersey native and Spectator photographer Katherine Gerberich, who serves as my Penn Station Virgil. We pull into Princeton Junction and plug an address—400 Forrestal Road—into Uber. A few minutes later, we arrive at our destination: a big, concrete building with a tiny, concrete door. A pickup truck is the only vehicle in the parking lot.
We hesitate in the Uber for a few minutes, thinking this building can’t possibly be the right one, before approaching a makeshift bell with a crumpled Post-it note instructing visitors to ring. (Shortly after we are let in, we realize that Uber doesn’t have enough data on the address, so our driver brought us to the wrong side of the building. “I did that my first day here too,” Ian Bogus, the director of the book warehouse, tells us. “And I thought, this isn’t the door they brought me in on during the interview!”)
The strange book warehouse, unknown to Google Maps and Uber, is called the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium, ReCAP for short. You might recognize the name from the bright pink sticker on the spines of books floating around Butler. The sticker appears on any items requested for off-site delivery on Columbia Libraries Information Online.
This foreign library is radically transforming the way we collect and maintain knowledge at Columbia. We’ve moved nearly five million books to the facility over the past two decades. Just this past fall, we entered a partnership connected to ReCAP that increased the size of our catalog by nearly 50 percent. But because those books—12 million requestable volumes, in total—are hidden from sight in New Jersey, these changes have gone relatively unnoticed.
Walking through the stacks of ReCAP is an uncanny experience: It’s like being inside the creation of an alien to whom the concept of a library has been thoroughly described, but who has never actually been in one, as the saying goes. The books are on shelves, but they’re all arranged so that their covers, rather than their spines, are facing outward. The 20 million volumes have been organized, yes, but by physical size, not subject matter. Most of the books are not even in physical reach—the aisles stretch 30 feet high. Employees use forklifts to get orders off the shelves.
To see the invisible changes that Columbia University Libraries is undergoing, it is necessary to see ReCAP up close, not from CLIO, as most people do. That’s why I am here, looking bewilderedly around ReCAP’s stacks. And it’s absolutely overwhelming.
ReCAP has added urgency to a question I’ve always struggled to answer: How does Columbia maintain such a mammoth collection? I wrote a story on Butler in 2016, trying to wrap my head around that question by developing an understanding of the immensity of the knowledge housed in CUL. When I spoke to Janet Parks, curator of drawings and archives at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at the time, she compared the process of learning how to research at a library to the process of learning how to swim—scary at first but eventually second nature, a description that resonated with me.
The ability to research is perhaps one of the most valuable skills I’ve acquired in college, but I also realize that this new intuition poses a new danger: forgetting the means of my discovery.
Research, once you’ve done enough of it, may feel like swimming: It gets easier over time, until you don’t notice what you’re doing. But in fact, research depends just as much on the water you tread—the tools of your research—as it does on your own volition. A bibliography is nothing but a series of decisions facilitated by the setting of your discovery: an impulse to look up a book from a list, a glance at the book on the shelf with the interesting cover, or a decision to sift through books next to the one you were originally looking for.
Walking around ReCAP, I begin to understand just how much this strange book warehouse changes the stacks paradigm. I think to myself, "So this is water.”
It’s easy to become accustomed to the convenience of the “Offsite” button in CLIO and swim in ReCAP’s water through this online resource. But the decision to store books off-site has been a complicated one for faculty, librarians, and students to negotiate. It has posed a series of problems that are still in the process of being solved: What goes off-site? How will we discover books serendipitously? How can we maintain the experience of browsing?
“We were formed because of a space issue,” Bogus bluntly states at the beginning of our interview.
And a space problem was all there was, at least at first, when ReCAP (or, depending on whom you talk to, Book IKEA, Book Costco, Book Heaven, or Book Purgatory) was just a warehouse for all the books that didn’t fit on our campus.
The origin story is what you’d expect: Shortly before 2000, CUL found itself running out of room for books. It was faced with a difficult choice between three less-than-ideal options: find a new space to put all the books, throw away the old ones, or stop collecting new ones. Columbia, like most peer institutions facing the same problem at the time, decided to go with the first option.
Most peer institutions—Harvard, Yale, and Brown, for example—can build their own off-site facilities near their campuses and manage them independently. But because of the prohibitive cost of real estate in or near New York City, it wasn’t feasible for Columbia to do the same. CUL correctly suspected that New York Public Library might be having the same problem. The two institutions partnered up and eventually struck a deal with Princeton to develop a high-density storage facility in New Jersey, where the costs are cheaper than in New York, for the three institutions to share, as Bogus tells me.
The three libraries, now allied, formed a consortium and bought a plot of land on Princeton’s Forrestal Campus, one of those generic university satellites founded to host science experiments in the 1950s. Nearly 60 years after many of those experiments folded, the campus has another sort of experiment going on, but this time in librarianship.
ReCAP has been at Forrestal Campus for the past 17 years, shipping out 200,000 books a year and storing over 10 million of them in high-density shelving. It is, as Bogus tells me and as the ReCAP website brags, the largest such facility in the world. (The Library of Congress has more books stored in high-density shelving, but they’re split across two buildings, a technicality that pushes ReCAP to the top of the list.)
ReCAP follows the Harvard Depository model, named after the first such high-density facility, built by Harvard in 1986. Books are kept in boxes called trays, whose width and height are calculated to ensure that no slot on the shelves is left unfilled. The shelves, usually towering dozens of feet, form aisles; groupings of aisles are called modules; modules are separated from one another by walls to allow for easy expansion and to block the spread of fire in the event of an emergency.
The modules themselves are indistinguishable from one another, demarcated only by sliding walls. I ask Bogus if there’s any variation among modules and aisles. Apparently, some of them are a few feet longer than the others. Bogus points at one aisle and tells us that, just because it is holding larger-size materials, it happens to store about 200,000 books—a little below the average aisle and, coincidentally, the same number of books that ReCAP ships out to library patrons each year. But other than that, every aisle is the same, their contents determined solely by the institutional affiliation and item size. The facility, though meeting the main requirement for libraryhood—a collection of requestable books on shelves—is a drably uniform, super nerdy warehouse, not a library.
From a strictly preservationist standpoint, the Harvard Depository model is genius. As Scot Murdoch, the architect of ReCAP, tells me, the preservation index of books tends to jump hundreds of years in these kinds of facilities. Since so few people are entering the stacks, they can be dehumidified and kept at low temperatures, leaving books in far better condition.
Meanwhile, economically, it is far cheaper to pay for high-density space than to use valuable campus space to store books. Even though Columbia has to pay to ship the books when they’re requested, the space on campus can be used much more efficiently.
This arrangement, however, is something that would have been inconceivable 50 years ago. Lizanne Payne, the shared print program officer at HathiTrust who served as a consultant during the developmental phases of ReCAP’s Shared Collection, tells me that nobody could have anticipated ReCAP looming over Columbia’s future.
After all, Butler has room for three million books. The rest of CUL houses 10 million more. And it’s hard to imagine that 13 million books isn’t enough when you take a moment to think about how big that number is.
While writing this, I took a break to to walk up the stairs from floor two to floor 12 of the Butler Stacks. I got out on each level and looked around, absorbing the scale of it: I can imagine fitting all the books I’ve ever read into just half an aisle. Then, I went outside and stared at our library’s imposing figure, an immense neoclassical hulk held upright by that massive column of books, the thousands upon thousands of spines lining Butler’s spine.
We really wanted for people to get a sense of just how just how many books Columbia owns, so we made a little game. To begin, press "Start".
And yet a few million books, while a big enough figure to keep even the most voracious readers occupied for millennia, is too small for a research university like Columbia, a university that wants to keep pace with the explosion of knowledge that has accompanied the information age. So ReCAP was born to house millions more.
But housing millions more wasn’t enough, when millions more were still in sight, lingering on Princeton and NYPL’s shelves at ReCAP. Just last fall, Columbia, Princeton, and NYPL launched a program that allows us to access all those books, called the Shared Collection Service. The initiative integrated the off-site catalogs of Columbia, Princeton, and NYPL, displaying all the off-site books from each of the collections in their respective search engines.
“We gained access to 7 million items. It’s amazing,” Ann Thornton, university librarian and vice provost at Columbia, exclaims. “It took us over 100 years to build up a collection of 13 million, and then we got seven million overnight.”
But the fanfare accompanying this massive growth in the libraries’ size has been absurdly limited, consisting of a single CUL press release. Thornton acknowledges this paltry recognition, mumbling, “And it’s like nobody noticed!”
The Shared Collection Service is a big deal. It is arguably the most consequential thing to ever happen to CUL in terms of collection growth. And though released to little fanfare, the results have been tangible in terms of access rates to the ReCAP collection. According to Thornton, there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of non-Columbia items coming to and from ReCAP since the collection launched.
Unlike services such as Borrow Direct or Interlibrary Loan, which already allowed for the flow of books between libraries, the Shared Collection involves an even higher degree of technical and strategic coordination among the partner institutions. Generally, in a program like Borrow Direct, the partners retain total control of their books. Shared Collections are more restrictive in the policies that police books but involve more institutional integration and are thus more robust: Multiple institutions’ books are housed in a jointly operated facility, accessed through a common middleware and regulated by a common set of rules on collection items.
That’s a bunch of jargon about the difference between Borrow Direct and the Shared Collection, but it more or less amounts to a contrast that might look like this: After my first year of college, I ran out of room on my shelves to store all my Lit Hum books. Let’s say I came up with two solutions to solve the problem.
In the first, I rely on a friend to retain her Lit Hum books, and I sell my own. Whenever I need to reference a Lit Hum book, I ask her to send it from her bookcase to mine, which she does. But then, two years down the line, my friend sells her Lit Hum books; once she does that, I have no means of accessing them anymore. This sort of arrangement is analogous to Borrow Direct’s protocol: non-guaranteed, provisional access to other libraries’ collections. While those agreements allow for access to more books, they also come with a risk, because those books can be sold at any moment. So while it’s a nice benefit, it doesn’t make sense to build collection strategies around this sort of arrangement. The safer option is to just keep my Lit Hum books, just like the safer option for libraries is to retain books that other libraries in Borrow Direct also own.
In the second solution, however, I decide to make an explicit agreement with my friend. My friend and I invest in a bookcase together, which we jointly own and maintain, placing it at a location central to both of us. To that bookshelf I contribute my first semester texts, agreeing to keep them indefinitely and allowing her to access them in perpetuity, even if I later decide to buy my own bookcase. She does the same for her second semester texts. Then, I sell the books from the second semester, and she sells her books from the first semester. The result would be a great deal for the both of us: We’d save costs by splitting the financial burden of buying the bookcase and gain money from the sale of the books, all without compromising our access to the texts. That’s what a Shared Collection arrangement looks like for libraries.
COLUMBIA OWNS OVER 13 MILLION
...RECAP GIVES IT ACCESS
TO 7 MILLION MORE.