Widener Stacks Division Completes the Movement of Millions of Volumes – Not an Easy Trick

September 19, 2002 - In a popular card trick, a willing volunteer picks cards out of a deck and puts them in four seemingly arbitrary piles. The trickster directs the volunteer, “Place that card here. Place this card here. Now move that card from that pile into this pile.” Cards move about in what appears like a chaotic system of chance. But at the end, when the trickster asks the volunteer to flip up the top card in each of the four piles…they are all aces. After performing a similar trick that involved books and not cards, ten stack levels and not four piles, the Widener Stacks Division came up aces at the end of August. Their feat, which included the cleaning, moving, and shelving of three million volumes to facilitate the Widener Stacks Renovation (WSR), is so immense some would say it could only have been done with magic.

The five-year renovation of Widener Library is a massive construction project that began in June of 1999 with the first phase, WSR, which was undertaken to ensure the long-term preservation and security of the Widener Library collections. Renovating the stacks meant moving the 125,000 books found on each of the Widener stack half-levels, which are ten levels deep on both east and west sides, to a new location to allow construction on the level. To accomplish the task, the Stacks Division, headed by Johnny Weyand (and formerly Ron Tesler), needed a detailed, flexible plan, extensive collaboration with HCL Facilities Management, and space for books.

Before pounding, drilling, or painting began, the Stacks Division, with help from the Harvard Depository Transfer and Push teams, moved all holdings on D-Level (the basement) to the adjoining Pusey Library or the Harvard Depository (the offsite library storage facility) in order to create a swing space where books could be placed during the project.

Renovation advanced through the stacks at the rate of one half-level every six weeks. Weyand created detailed maps for each level, designating how many shelves should be in each individual stacks section, what sort of shelf was needed, the vertical spacing within each section, what style of shelf was needed, and how much empty growth space should be left at the end of a shelf once the books were replaced.

A brief ten-day window between construction on each half-level was allocated to clean the newly renovated space, from floor to lighting fixtures, and reconfigure it in preparation for the return of books. During the same ten days, the next half-level was cleared of books. Then construction began, and the cycle repeated.

The WSR construction concluded in April; leaving the stacks replete with upgraded heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, humidity control, electrical, fire suppression, and security systems. At that time, Weyand and staff began to focus on the second aspect of the project, completing the reorganization of the book classes.

“Historically, similar materials were often placed in completely different locations because of the two classification systems employed in the library – Old Widener, and Library of Congress. One of our major goals during the renovation has been to bring together the two classifications, so materials of the same subject are adjacent to one and another. Working with a professional book moving company, the Stacks Division achieved 98 percent adjacency within like classifications in Widener. At the beginning of the project we only had 15 percent adjacency. The Stacks Division staff deserves special recognition and thanks for their contribution to this enormous project,” said Marilyn Wood, Head of Access Services.

Because WSR necessitated moving all books in Widener and many in Pusey, it offered the library an unparalleled opportunity to reorganize collections and create logical adjacencies.

“Physical space, growth pattern of individual collections, subject relationships, and issues relating to the renovation were all factors that determined how and where books moved. Incorporating each of these elements into the plans felt like doing a huge jigsaw puzzle in my head. I realized the final layout would impact scholars using the Widener stacks for decades; it made me look at all possible alternatives—and then look again,” said Weyand.

Planning and executing the movement of millions of volumes was completed while the Stacks Division continued to perform their normal workload. Each month Stacks shelved 51,000 volumes, shelf read over 100,000 volumes, and paged 900 items. While Weyand was involved in renovation work, Assistant Heads of Stacks Astrid Hoffius and Richard Lopez helped supervise these activities.

“Access to the Widener collection has literally and philosophically been transformed,” said Jeffrey Horrell, Associate Librarian of Harvard College for Collections. “Building on Ron Tesler’s initial planning for the stack moves, Johnny Weyand and his staff have carefully and thoughtfully organized the sequence of classifications to create logical adjacencies within the newly renovated stacks. This is an important achievement and we anticipate that our users will find the Widener stacks more accessible.”