Long Tails and Low Humidity: ReCAP Research Collections and Preservation Consortium

Research libraries embrace two primary missions: to preserve the world’s intellectual culture, and to distribute it as widely as possible. ReCAP, the state-of-the-art book storage facility in Princeton, is central to both these missions. ReCAP began in 1999 as a collaboration among Columbia University Libraries, Princeton University, and New York Public Library to build and to preserve the holdings of these three enormous libraries, and to provide access to the “long tails” of these three collections in the most efficient manner possible.

From Lorcan Dempsey's 2008 presentation http://slideplayer.us/slide/723046/

The research library’s long tail: fewer than 20% of  books account for 80% of book circulation. (From Lorcan Dempsey’s 2008 presentation http://slideplayer.us/slide/723046/)

Executive Director Jacob Nadal explained to GC and NYPL visiting librarians that ReCAP’s partnership will eventually shift from management of three independent collections to management of a single shared collection in a shared facility. All partner libraries will benefit: each library will contribute unique titles, and together they will lengthen the long tail of possible titles immediately available to all partner library users.

NYPL Curators marvel at ReCAP’s vertical canyons. Note the book picking machine, operated by ReCAP staff, in far rear.

Use the NYPL Classic Catalog to order items from ReCAP, delivered to the NYPL Main Library service desk (or to the NYPL service desk of the library’s originating collection). Requests for physical books received by ReCAP before 2.30 pm Mon – Fri are filled at the NYPL Schwarzman Building (aka the Main Branch) the next day. Requests received after 2.30 pm on Fridays arrive on Tuesday. NYPL visitors can download a free PDF of many ReCAP titles directly and immediately from Hathi Trust (inside NYPL research library IP space, that is), reducing wear-and-tear on the physical collection. NYPL’s loan services supply PDF copies of ReCAP journal articles and book chapters to borrowers, too. GC users can request ReCAP material through GC Interlibrary Loan or through NYPL’s request service.

ReCap shelving fitted by size reduces air flow around objects to slow decay.

ReCap shelving fitted by size reduces air flow around objects to slow decay

ReCAP’s materials are preserved in optimum environmental conditions, dramatically extending the life of every book, periodical, film, video, photograph, and LP lucky enough to be in there. Books and LPs are kept at 55 F; the film at 35 F with very low humidity. ReCAP is not built for browsing. Items are kept in specially designed boxes, warehouse style, and ReCAP staff retrieve items using a “cherry picker” that efficiently elevates staff as high in the vertical ranges as necessary. Archival boxes are set one-by-another cheek-to-jowl, on specifically-sized shelving, to minimize air flow around objects and to reduce decay.

Jason displays a secret hiding place for temp and humidity instruments.

ReCAP ED Jacob Nadal displays temp and humidity instruments embedded to gauge the impact of ReCAP’s climate on book pages. (No valuable materials were harmed for this experiment; the Webster’s dictionary is commonly sold in retail stores.)

ReCAP’s time-weighted preservation index (twpi) is such that a book with a 50-year life expectancy in a people-friendly climate will last 250 years in ReCAP. ReCAP’s climate benefits linger even if items are loaned to readers. It takes a while for books to absorb moisture once back in human environments, and upon return to ReCAP, the moisture gained is gradually dried back out again.

The ReCAP project is one of several other prominent global preservation centers, including Oxford University’s Bodlian Library featured here.

GC librarians were thrilled to join NYPL’s field trip to ReCAP to gain appreciation for the massive, coordinated preservation efforts research libraries in the 21st century will manage.

About the Author

Prof. Polly Thistlethwaite is CUNY's Interim University Dean for Library Services.