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Academic libraries of tomorrow: 4 models for storing your collections

January 08, 2020

By Scott Sullivan

There are multiple ways of storing collections. Let’s break them down and separate the fiction from the nonfiction.

Imagine this—a library that’s bustling with quiet energy and activity. Smalls groups are taking advantage of the flexible collaboration areas. Individuals are scanning research on computers or engaged in solo studying. This bright, open space feels like an academic home away from home, with welcoming space perfect to dive into a research project or group presentation. While this space feels like the typical library, one important element is missing: stacks upon stacks of books.

As more information is digitized, libraries of tomorrow are taking on a new shape to better serve as places for learning, engagement, and discovery. This means that many libraries are either honing down or culling their collections significantly—or hiding them away entirely—in favor of creating a Learning Commons that students can use as an extension of their life on campus. Rather than a simple knowledge and resource center, these libraries are spaces where students can extend learning and socialization outside of the dorm or classroom.

This is not a one-size-fits-all approach, however. While many libraries are opting for high tech approaches that utilize drastically less space in the building’s footprint, other libraries continue to see value in building stacks from the days of yore.

Let’s take a look at four ways colleges and universities are approaching the design of next generation academic libraries—each of which comes with benefits and challenges.

Nearly 15,000 new title volumes are displayed in the main lobby of the Charles Library at Temple University.


Model #1—Traditional open stacks

The six-foot high stack has been a constant for collection storage for hundreds of years. Books are readily visible to the student who can not only pick the book they were looking for, but also browse similar titles sitting adjacent. This model provides the easiest collection access and the shortest time for book retrieval to the student.

However, it also has the largest footprint for book storage at 28 books per square foot. It also has a high first cost due to the large footprint within the library itself. Operationally, however, the costs are low for upkeep and book return.

Model #2—High-density shelving

Created in the 1960s, high-density shelving systems offered the advantage of storing more collections in less space. At 56 books per square foot, the storage is double that of traditional open stacks. It offers security because it usually requires a library employee to access the books, and the shelving containers can be fire-rated.

It does not allow for browsing, and it has a high first cost due to the specialty shelving. Operationally, the costs are low for upkeep and book return.

Model #3—Off-site storage

As library collections grew, many libraries lacked the physical space to store collections from within and were forced to create off-site storage. The advantage of off-site storage is a lower initial cost as the off-site storage could be in a located in an inexpensive warehouse.

However, this model does not allow browsing, and has the longest time for book retrieval. Operational costs are high because of the requirement for both labor and vehicles to transport the requested book from warehouse to the library. But it is a great option for storing books that may be checked out only once or twice per year—or those that may not be checked out for even 10 years.

An automated storage and retrieval system at the Charles Library at Temple University houses 1.8 million volumes, while the remaining 300,000 volumes are stored among browsable stacks and secure high-density storage.

Model #4—Automated storage retrieval system (ASRS)

The automated storage system, also known as the “bookbot,” was born out of the automotive industry where it was used to store car parts for the manufacturers. The ASRS stores books in metal bins and delivers the requested bin to a library employee. One advantage of the ASRS is density, storing 189 books per square foot, or 6.75 times that of traditional open stacks. It also has a quick book retrieval time of about 90 seconds.

The ASRS does not allow for browsing but offers collection security. It has a high initial cost for the equipment, but a lower cost of footprint within the library, allowing funds—and square footage—to be allocated to other spaces in the library.

Looking for perfection?

Is there a perfect single model for your library? The most likely answer is no. However, a blend of these models might be the right fit. Some libraries have special collections and volumes that are rarely circulated. These might ideally by located within high density or ASRS storage.

As more information becomes digitized, libraries of tomorrow are taking on a new shape to better serve as places for learning, engagement, and discovery.

Cutting-edge technology like the ASRS helps make the creation of a Learning Commons possible, without having to sacrifice a library’s collection. This system not only allows for more space for individual and group study areas but also helps preserve books within a controlled environment.

For example, at the recently completed Charles Library at Temple University, we utilized a blend of open shelving, high-density shelving, and an ASRS to house 2.1 million volumes. The library chose to locate 13,800 new title volumes near the main entry, 260,000 volumes in browsable stacks, 31,000 special collection volumes in secure high-density storage, and the remaining 1.8 million volumes within the ASRS.

The use of the ASRS with its small footprint has allowed the library to expand student study space, one of the main goals for the University, and relocate its Student Success Center into the Charles Library. The University has in recent years transitioned from a predominant commuter student population to more residential, and the new library is one of many initiatives to entice students to stay on campus, both for recreation and for study.

The Charles Library at Temple University embraces a hybrid storage solution, including traditional open stacks, to expand student study space.

At Grand Valley State University, the installation of an ASRS helped us store an incredible amount of material at the new Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons in the fraction of the space of traditional stacks. To be exact, 600,000 volumes within only 3,500 square feet of floor space, four stories tall. This project was also reflective of a school’s focus on reinventing itself. Because the university could not increase the size of the existing library, librarians had to cull the collection down, removing books that had not been checked out over the previous 12 months. Doing so reduced the number of stacks and opened space for tutoring and study areas.

For the aforementioned reasons, ASRS seems to be an optimal solution for most academic libraries. But it’s important to know this technology doesn’t offer a one-size-fits-all solution. Student preference also plays a role, and we have found that students whose education major is within the arts and humanities prefer to browse open stacks, while the STEM majors are willing to have a book retrieved for them. From our experience designing projects with these systems, one thing is clear—there are many storage considerations to keep in mind.

  • Scott Sullivan

    Scott offers more than 20 years of experience in higher education facilities design and construction.

    Contact Scott
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