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Preserving Rare, Valuable Books and Artifacts, 27 Feet Below

Libraries like the New York Public Library help democratize information, and design plays a critical role in preserving the materials these institutions provide. Image © Mike. (Image was modified fro its original version)

Beneath the buzz of winter holiday shoppers and summer movie crowds that make New York City's Bryant Park such a lively year-round destination exists a sophisticated, high-tech book storage facility. The flagship of the New York Public Library System, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Library is an iconic cultural institution served by a complex retrieval network and vast underground collection of valuable and rare books, maps, art works and manuscripts.

What are some of the challenges to housing a renowned research collection 27 feet below a major and active New York park? How does one replace an antiquated conveyance system to transport those materials to patrons faster and more efficiently? More broadly, in a world of increasingly digitized information, what does it mean to be a steward for the maintenance and preservation of media that are often perceived as outdated and in decline? These were the issues Gensler encountered when tasked with expanding and updating the Milstein Research Stacks below Bryant Park.

The most basic and fundamental challenge in preserving any paper-based media is controlling moisture and water infiltration, as these are major risks for the life span of these materials. Achieving watertight conditions in a 25-year-old concrete repository required us to employ a number of redundant systems. Beneath the finished floor is a robust waterproofing membrane that was designed and tested to withstand the dynamic forces imposed by the movement of the large mobile shelving units. Just behind the foundation walls, we installed a waterproofing curtain by drilling a vast array of holes and injecting a polyurethane grout that forms a resinous waterproof barrier. Additionally, there is a full height trough surrounding the entire 55,000-square-foot space that collects any water should the waterproofing systems fail. It then diverts that water away from the building via a series of drainage pipes and pumps. The presence of water in the stacks is closely monitored with sensors that alert staff should raised levels be detected.

Climate control is also essential in maintaining these collections. Humidity and temperature in the stacks are designed to achieve a uniform and constant level of 65 degrees with 40 percent humidity throughout. There is a constellation of temperature and humidity sensors throughout the stacks. In addition, the mechanical equipment is designed to be efficient and less energy-intensive than the previous systems.

The facility’s nearly 3 million volumes of research materials are stored in a system of high-density shelving. These manually-operated mobile units move on a series of steel tracks embedded in the concrete floor. These units are designed and calibrated to operate with minimal effort and maintenance by staff and personnel.

The current system retrieves material by pages from shelves beneath the park and in the main library stacks. The material is then transported to reference desks via a system of belted conveyors and mechanical lifts. That system is being updated and replaced with a motorized, self-propelled car and rail system. This system is able to transition from horizontal to vertical travel seamlessly, without having the loads shift. Each car in the system can accommodate a range of payload types and sizes, and is tracked in real-time from a central computer.

The legacy of the New York Public Library lies in its role in democratizing scholarship, and making available renowned research material to the public. As designers working in research libraries and cultural institutions like these, it is incumbent upon us to think creatively to preserve often rare and valuable cultural artifacts. It is important that we embrace innovation and design so that these cultural products continue to be available to the public.

Anthony Harris
Anthony Harris joined Gensler’s New York office in 2013 as a Project Architect. Harris is a key component of the management, design and production of the community studio. He brings an array of talent and leadership to the success of his projects. Anthony’s prior experience includes medium and large-scale institutional, hospitality, and workplace projects. In addition, his projects have included core, shell, and interiors work for various multi-family and single family residential, education, and mixed-use retail clients. Contact him at anthony_harris@gensler.com.

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