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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2004 > College Row
College Row

From the Folger

The story I wish to tell is one of logistical wizardry, dedication, physical labor and wonderful cooperation between the librarians of Amherst College and the staff of the Folger. The Folger is about to embark on its own “Big Dig,” and we have only six months to complete it.

Many of you may know that the Folger’s rare books collection is housed in a two-story underground vault beneath the new reading room and extending to the edge of the Folger’s property line. The vault was designed with a dual-membrane waterproofing system that was supposed to protect our books forever. But in August 2002, we discovered seeping cracks in a number of walls and the horrifying sight of standing water in an aisle surrounded by rare volumes. The collection was in danger. We immediately commissioned an engineering survey, which found that the water seemed to be coming in from the sides of the vault. Full repair would require a complete excavation and re-waterproofing of interior and exterior walls. Because we could stage such an excavation only on adjacent property, we sought permission from the Library of Congress to dig the alley that separates their property from ours. By the time this column appears, construction will be well underway.

What does a library do with thousands of books while such an extensive repair takes place? Early in the process we resolved not to shut down library operations (as our sister institution, the Morgan Library in New York, has done), and to keep our collection available to the scholars whose research depends on access to our rare materials. We needed off-site storage for low-use items. Will Bridegam, librarian of the college, immediately offered free storage in the Five College bunker on the outskirts of Amherst. Led by Folger Librarian Richard Kuhta, staff identified 30,000 low-use items, then packed and trucked almost 1,000 bar-coded boxes to the bunker. Folger staff and Frost Library staff met the boxes as they arrived from Washington and orchestrated safe storage.

For the 256,000 books remaining on-site at the Folger, the only way to proceed was by halves—that is, to empty half the vault and allow work to begin there. Once half of the exterior and interior has been re-waterproofed, we will move the books to the newly repaired section and finish up the second half, all the time keeping this priceless collection out of harm’s way behind a dust-free barrier to be built in the middle of the vault. Fifteen thousand books were moved to a newly created stack space on the third floor; the rest were compressed gently on shelves usually filled (in keeping with good library practice) to only 75 percent of capacity. We used every available and secure space in this historic building.

All of these books will have to be moved several times before the vault repair and waterproofing are completed. The books packed and sent to Amherst will be unpacked and re-shelved on their return. When we are finished, we will have accomplished a staggering total of 657,000 separate “handlings.” The work has been shared between professional book movers and dedicated Folger staff: climbing up tall ladders, turning and twisting to wrest large auction catalogues off tall shelves, becoming covered with the “red rust” that flakes off old leather periodical bindings and toting flat files hither and yon. They have worked during lunch hours, after hours and on weekends, moving thousands of over-size and often delicate volumes one at a time.

The enormity of what has been accomplished can be conveyed only partly through numbers and narrative, for more than anything it is a story of remarkable teamwork. Only by seeing totally empty space where once were endless shelves of books can one realize what Folger staff members have carried out, moved by a formidable esprit de corps, by a sense of urgency and by love for this great library. I am enormously proud of this staff, even as I know that rough days are ahead. The noise and dirt of construction are inimical to the quiet work of a library, even one as lively as ours. We will count on the patience of our staff and the loyalty of our scholars, who (wearing earplugs all the while) must be grateful that we decided to keep the reading rooms open as we make the Folger rare-book vault safe—this time forever.

—Gail Kern Paster

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