Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind: Basement Totes

Written by Collections Management Manager, Rose Mendoza. 

What happens when a library of approximately 500,000 materials must be transferred from one building to another, but the two buildings have different sizes and layouts? This was the situation we encountered when we moved from the Charles Von der Ahe Library to the William H. Hannon Library in the summer of 2009. In order to have all our collections on-site, we decided to house a large portion of these materials in the basement of the new William H. Hannon Library. Approximately 150,000 items were initially identified for this purpose and placed in call number order in totes – small, strong, acid-free boxes – in the basement shelves of the new building. It was our intent that the items in the totes would be immediately retrievable for library users, via LINK+, and for our interlibrary loan affiliates.

Building of Hannon Library
A view of the basement during the library’s construction in 2008.

Since then, we have transferred roughly 11,000 books per year from main stacks (the shelves you see on Levels 1-3) to the basement, so space in the basement must be used efficiently. In 2013, we purchased a database system called GFA (Generation Fifth Applications) to help us develop and organize space-saving, high-density storage in the basement based on the sizes of the materials. Our aim is to move all our basement materials into this high-density storage. Since 2013, tens of thousands of materials retrieved from basement totes for our patrons have been transferred to high-density storage upon the return of the materials.

Of course, transferring these items to the high-density storage has meant leaving gaps in the original tote collection. Additional gaps have come from projects involving withdrawing or transferring basement materials. These projects include the Sustainable Collection Growth Initiative, which involves selecting the most essential materials and transferring them into high-density storage, and a “committed to retain” project of transferring some materials that we and other libraries decided to keep for 10 years. These projects have resulted in many totes being partially filled or even empty. Partially filled or empty totes are a problem for space efficiency, and they can cause problems in locating materials.

box of books
A tote of books, organized by the GFA system

Furthermore, there may be any number of errors in the original organization of the materials in the totes, or materials may be missing, lost, or no longer in the library database. How can these errors be found? Who would know about them? In order to consolidate partially filled totes, organize the collection, and correct errors, we have been taking an inventory. Since November 2019, we have been inventorying the roughly 66,500 books, monographic series, and journals in the basement totes that had not yet been moved to high-density storage.

Nine student supervisors in the library’s Collections Management department have been hard at work with this inventory. These students remove each item from its tote, scanning the item and checking for various errors in the item record. Possible errors include having a wrong call number, two barcodes, or no barcode; not being in the database; being on search, missing, or lost; and having discrepancies in the location listed in the record. Problem items are given to the Collections Management Manager (as are other items, such as large sets of journal or reference items). Items whose records are accurate are consolidated and moved to a new tote location, and the new location is recorded in the database. Through this process, we are able to create a more accurate picture of the basement tote collection and to better manage space: we are consolidating materials to fill partially filled totes, consolidating totes to fill partially filled shelves, consolidating shelves to fill partially filled sections, and creating empty sections for future high-density storage. In the process, we have created space for an additional 101,136 items to be placed in high-density storage.

students in the library basement
Students on an all-access tour of the library basement. Totes in view.

Doing an inventory is costly, both in time and personnel resources. In our case, though, the inventory has resulted in significant savings in space, which itself is a valuable resource for the library. In addition, having errors in the collection can mean difficulty in providing services for our patrons, and the time spent inventorying the collection is offset by the time saved by students and staff searching for materials. The students working on the inventory have been enthusiastic in identifying errors, possibly because they sense the benefits of an organized collection. They have completed more than 16,000 items for the inventory so far, with more to come in the near future.