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College libraries: the condensed version

Times Staff Writer

For a first-time visitor to the back closet of the UC system’s libraries, the experience is like a dizzying optical illusion. Within its thick concrete walls and bunker-like interior, the partly underground building tucked into a quiet gully on UCLA’s campus contains row after row after row of crowded shelves that usually are off-limits to anyone but special librarians.

How could there be so many books, journals, microfilms and documents in this tomblike space known as the Southern Regional Library Facility?

The count, officials report, is about 5.5 million -- and growing.

The quake-resistant shelves that stretch nearly 200 feet long figure into a debate at colleges and universities across California and the rest of the country:

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Even as the Internet revolution raises the promise of widespread digital publishing, librarians are grappling with deciding which books to keep and figuring out how to efficiently store them -- even if no one touches them in a generation. That dilemma is heightened because room and funding for traditional open stacks are scarce, and library space increasingly is being converted to computer labs and study rooms.

The mammoth facility at UCLA mainly holds rarely utilized books that regular libraries on five UC campuses no longer need on a daily basis, and librarians say they foresee the three-level structure filling to its capacity of 6.9 million items.

“Within a few years, we will be very tight,” the center’s director, Colleen A. Carlton, said.

There, in the preservation climate of 60 degrees and 50% humidity, is, for example, Louis Blanc’s two-volume history of the French Revolution, an edition published in 1866. Apparently no reader has cracked open the French-language books for at least 27 years. And some of the volumes near it aren’t leaping off the shelf either: a 1914 sanitation report from India, a 1975 volume about Russian museums and a 1983 Grenada government journal.

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In fact, according to Carlton, only about 2% of all the holdings is requested in a year, often couriered to other campuses.

But does it matter that no one has read the Blanc books since 1979? What if some future scholar needs its narrative of King Louis XVI’s beheading? Such concerns are driving libraries to create more shelf space in unusual ways, even if doing so limits old-fashioned wandering through open stacks.

Some, like the UC system, are putting more items in satellite storage buildings such as the regional ones at UCLA and its bigger sister facility in Northern California. Others are following the example of Cal State campuses in Northridge and Sonoma in constructing a tightly packed warehouse annex in which automated cranes retrieve books.

Still other libraries, such as Cal State Fresno and Cal Poly Pomona, are putting in more compact shelving in public areas, the kind that opens up aisles with a push of a button.

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To be sure, online publishing allows libraries to reduce some paper holdings, particularly academic journals. But the era of digital books is still too new and controversial to allow book collections to stop growing or for libraries to drastically weed their collections, experts say.

“If we don’t preserve the cultural heritage and scholarly record, no one else will,” explained Cynthia Shelton, a UCLA associate university librarian. “We know research interests change over time. So we don’t want to be in the business of projecting and predicting that we know we won’t need that book.”

Hidden from the mainstream of UCLA student life, the Southern Regional facility opened in 1987 and doubled its capacity with a new wing 10 years ago. Officials say it might need another expansion a la UC’s slightly older Northern Regional Facility in Richmond, which last year finished a $16.1-million third wing, allowing its current 5.6-million-item collection to add about 2 million.

USC has a library storage facility, called the Grand Avenue Library, two blocks east of the main campus. Students and faculty can visit the estimated 2-million-book annex or order books on a computer system for delivery to campus the same day, said Marje Schuetze-Coburn, dean of the USC Libraries. That storage creates more room on campus for the new and most popular books in shelving that is not so packed.

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“We’ve been able to improve access overall,” she said.

Universities are looking at possibly ordering fewer copies of some books because Internet-based catalogs and digitization can make sharing among schools more likely. But they are cautious, she said, because “we don’t want a make a space-saving decision that could wipe out future studies.”

Other schools are taking a mechanical approach by building warehouse-like space next to libraries, storing books in canyons of crates and installing high-tech automated systems to retrieve them quickly.

In 1991, Cal State Northridge’s Oviatt Library pioneered that technique, opening a partly underground storage wing where six automated cranes grab cases of books from 40-foot-high stacks. Now it contains 750,000 items, about two-thirds of the library’s full collection, according to Eric Willis, the Oviatt’s systems administrator.

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Students and faculty can order a book online and the computer system directs the cranes to retrieve one of the 13,260 bins, each containing scores of volumes. Then told by computer where to look in the crate, a librarian either carries the book to a desk or puts it on the mini-trolleys dubbed Huey, Dewey and Louie that run on tracks to other parts of the building. In all, the process typically takes no more than 10 minutes, often less.

Because the automated storage and retrieval system contains mainly less-popular books, requests average only 70 a day. Most of the books have not been touched in at least 10 years, Willis said. Consider a 1911 history titled “The Political Activities of the Baptists and Fifth Monarchy Men in England During the Interregnum.” It was last checked out 25 years ago.

“You can keep the most popular material on the stacks, but at the same time keep older material in a much denser storage,” he said.

The system has had a few breakdowns but none very serious, and it survived the 1994 Northridge earthquake, although the structure was badly damaged, officials said. “For us, it’s an excellent solution. It’s given good service,” said Susan C. Curzon, CSUN’s library dean.

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Around the country, several other campuses, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Sonoma State, followed suit, and others plan to, including Santa Clara University and Cal State campuses in Long Beach and San Francisco. School officials say it is ultimately cheaper than building enough room for traditional shelves.

Sonoma’s library dean, Barbara Butler, said she is pleased with how her 6-year-old system contains about 350,000 items, about half the school’s collection, with plenty of room for more. It allows more floor space for study areas and for the height of the public shelves to be lowered in spots to let in more natural light. “This has changed the ambience to one of expansiveness,” she said.

But not everyone likes such automation. Michael Gorman, the soon-to-retire dean of library services at Cal State Fresno, said his campus steered away from it in a library expansion under construction.

Fresno’s project instead will include more compact shelving, the kind that usually lacks aisles until someone pushes a button to open up one. Such movable shelves may seem odd at first to some, but “it’s really very easy once you get used to it. It doesn’t kill people,” said Gorman, past president of the American Library Assn.

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There’s another value to letting people roam the stacks. The off-limits automated systems, he said, seem to discourage the exploration that can serendipitously lead a reader to the perfect book.

“The average undergraduate who is doing a course on European art might wander into the library and look for something,” Gorman said. “They are not asking for a specific title; that’s not the way they operate.”

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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