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College Row

Illustration: Books flyingFrom Bombs to Books

During the Cold War, one of the Soviet Union’s primary targets would have been Amherst, Mass. The Russians had nuclear missiles aimed at the town not because they hated higher education, but because a bunker on the side of the Holyoke Range housed a backup command center for the Strategic Air Command in Omaha. If the central base at Omaha had been destroyed, control of nuclear war would have switched to Amherst. You can see that dark history today in the rusted warning signs at the bunker’s gates, the massive concrete and lead walls and ceilings built into the mountainside, and the now-vacant control room with signs that say “Senior Battle Staff Only.”

Because of the bunker’s ominous background, its current use is all the more striking: it is owned by Amherst College and, since 1994, has been filled with books from Frost Library. Now it is also the depository for books from the other Five Colleges, which in November began leasing 10,000 square feet of the bunker from Amherst College. The depository is needed because all of the schools’ libraries have growing collections of books and limited space in which to store them. Remodeling the bunker was much cheaper than building additions to the libraries, says Will Bridegam, librarian of the college and the mastermind behind the purchase and conversion of the bunker.

Originally the bunker was intended for Amherst alone, an idea that came about because the college had too many pressing priorities at the time and couldn’t justify the expense of a new library building. “As we were planning for it,” Bridegam says, “it occurred to me that what’s good for Amherst would be good for the other four institutions in the valley. I checked with my colleagues at the other schools, and they said yes, they could use that kind of facility, too.” The schools then pursued grant money to develop and run the depository. The Mellon Foundation provided a major grant to start the project, with subsequent support from the Davis Educational Trust and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. “This is extraordinary,” Bridegam says. “These three foundations are willing to support us in this, although other libraries had not been terribly successful in interesting the foundations. We found that what interested the foundations most was that the colleges were willing to relinquish ownership of their books, that they could own these things in common. As far as I know this is the only example of this in the country.”

The Five College space is in a separate section of the bunker from the Amherst depository and features an unusual system for maximizing book storage. The books—mostly serials and government documents that are least often requested from the libraries—are not stored by call number or the Dewey Decimal System (which was invented by Melvil Dewey, Class of 1874). They are not sorted by subject. Rather, the books are sorted by size, with each shelf holding only books of the same height. And the books are not shelved spine out, but in long cardboard trays, packed in whatever direction most efficiently fills the space. The trays, in turn, are shelved end out, and each is given a distinctive code that’s entered into the depository computer. Because it is impossible for anyone to find a given book without knowledge of the computer codes, users are not allowed into the depository but must instead request the books through their library. To further save space, the bookcases are motorized and ride on tracks to minimize aisles. According to David Spoolstra, the librarian for the Five College depository, the unusual storage system allows the depository to hold twice as many books as conventional library systems. He also notes that the bunker has the added benefit of having floors that can hold 500 pounds per square foot. It has the additional benefit of offering bomb-proof protection for the books, as well as constant temperature and humidity.

As of January, Mount Holyoke, the University of Massachusetts and Amherst had delivered books to the depository. Smith and Hampshire Colleges planned to follow suit through the spring. Spoolstra says it will take several years to fill the space.

Next: Prof. Dudley Towne >>

Illustration: Bonnie Timmons/gettyimages

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