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Brewster’s Ark
  • July 06, 2013 : 07:07
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Deep within one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area, inside a warehouse complex formerly used to assemble furniture, grows an enormous archive of books. The volumes range from best-selling novels to rare poetry manuscripts. They are not intended to be read—at least not anytime soon. Each day, more books—to date totaling roughly 1.5 million and counting—are scanned, digitized and sealed inside flame-resistant shipping containers. The vast literary archive is growing at such a rate that it is on pace to become one of the largest collections in the world.

The archive’s location was chosen for its microclimate. In the city of Richmond, ocean winds blast across the bay and converge in a vortex that maintains a nearly constant temperature. The windswept streets could belong to a whirling moonscape or a postapocalyptic wasteland. Crows drop copper bullets on the archive roof and fight viciously over squatting rights to the skylights. Around the corner, past a bakery, hookers duck in and out of unmarked buildings. Drug dealers keep watch under lowered baseball caps.

The morning I visit the archive, books arrive from the Boston Public Library. The shipment comes by semitruck—12 pallets’ worth, totaling more than 10,000 volumes. No due dates are stamped inside. Like hundreds of cities around the country, Boston has paid to have its library’s back holdings brought to Richmond because the books have been guaranteed to be stored safely and securely, under the crows, forever.

The driver pulls up to a loading dock. Situated across the street from a rail yard, the archive stretches across two interconnected warehouses that total more than 45,000 square feet. The driver steps out of the cab, wipes the sweat from his forehead and dodges a forklift that begins to scoop away his pallets of books. In less than an hour the truck is emptied, the driver sent on his way, the books shuttled into the shadows. Inside the warehouse a team of human scribes operates high-resolution scanners under booths of thick black curtains.

This gargantuan time capsule of books fulfills the dream of one of the world’s most determined cultural archivists, Brewster Kahle. An MIT graduate and Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Kahle has spent more than $3 million out of his nonprofit to buy and operate this facility. He devised the archive as a sort of data backup, apparently, to his online archive, which preserves web pages (150 billion and counting), concerts (including nearly 10,000 Grateful Dead recordings) and films (more than 500,000 of them)—all of which are available free to the public. You might say Kahle has a weakness for collecting things. You might also worry about ulterior motives. Regardless, his warehouse has quickly become the nation’s largest repository of unsold, unwanted, secondhand, duplicate and deaccessioned library books—which suits him just fine. “We’ll take everything,” he claims. “Our goal is one copy of every book. Every book in every language. Every book in the world.”

Each day brings more grim news for lovers of the printed word. Breakout sensations such as Fifty Shades of Grey occasionally revive the flagging publishing industry, but major publishers, after decades of consolidation, are declaring bankruptcy and shutting down. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are disappearing fast. Of the big booksellers, Amazon—an idea more than a place, a multitiered distribution center, like the internet itself—holds the lion’s share of the market. Public libraries, faced with ever-tightening budgets, have reduced buying, shortened hours and converted their reading rooms into glorified computer terminals. Librarians used to help customers find physical books—now they spend most of their time thinning holdings and helping patrons get online.

If publishers are folding, bookstores closing and libraries decreasing their holdings, what is happening to all the books? Many are being sent to Kahle. After watching Boston’s books disappear into his warehouse, I find the operational manager of the archive, Sean Fagan, in his office.

Fagan is a young, stubble-faced former scribe from Kahle’s southern California operation. Not surprisingly, his office is full of books. He has built an ottoman out of volumes the archive already has in storage—a 1928 copy of Don Quixote, The Modern Music Series Primer and Practical German Grammar, to name just a few—glued into a cube, attached to a plywood base and outfitted with wheels. Against the wall of his office, from floor to ceiling, he has almost 400 copies of The Da Vinci Code.

“We get a couple of those a month,” he says with a sneer. “I’m thinking of making a bench out of them.”

“Which libraries send you books?”

“Carnegie, Penn State, universities all over the place. We get 10,000 to 15,000 books a week. All the state libraries give us stuff. California just gave us another shipment. Want to see what they sent?”

I follow Fagan down a long dusty corridor, back toward the loading dock. (Normally he gets around the place by foot scooter.) We keep walking, and every time I turn around I come up against more books. There are books spilling out of cylindrical containers, plastic crates and bankers’ boxes, books stacked against water pipes, books jumbled in sorting bins and lying on the cement floor, their pages fluttering in the stable microclimate.

“As you can see, it’s kind of an airport hub here,” Fagan shouts as we arrive at the main warehouse. “We have the capacity for 3.5 million, but Brewster thinks we’re going to need more room. Only four of us are here full-time.” I ask him how he likes his job, but I don’t think he hears. He’s on his way to the shipment from the State of California. On the way we pass the archive forklift, temporarily at rest, followed by huge columns of shrink-wrapped books destined for “deep storage”—in other words, forever.

Kahle’s archive has given libraries the opportunity to cut costs, perhaps at the expense of the reader. Research libraries must accept the “hard reality of off-site storage,” Harvard library director Robert Darnton recently wrote. The main branch of the New York Public Library moved more than half its holdings—3 million volumes—to a storage facility in order to trim its budget and make room for a circulating library. These books may one day become available online. But does the average patron of a public library own a digital reading device? What will be the quality of their reading experiences? And how can people browse books that aren’t physically there?

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read more: entertainment, News, books, issue july 2013

1 comments

  • Yeghia
    Yeghia
    Great project to work on.
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