Backstage pass: UC Berkeley Library supporters get behind-the-scenes look at awe-inspiring storage facility

Operations Manager Tim Converse talks with visitors, including Mary MacDonald, right, during a Library Legacy Circle event at the Northern Regional Library Facility. (Photos by Jami Smith/UC Berkeley Library)

The UC Berkeley Library acquires new books and historical materials every year, and its crowded collections continue to grow. So why doesn’t the Library run out of room?

Meet the Northern Regional Library Facility, or NRLF, in Richmond. The long-term preservation facility stores the overflow of books and other precious materials.

A group of Library supporters recently toured the state-of-the-art facility, where they learned how NRLF receives, catalogs, and stores materials — and ensures that its 7.6 million items are ready for scholars to use. Their visit was part of an event for Legacy Circle members, who help sustain the Library through their estate plans. The Library organizes unique insider experiences for these exceptional supporters each year.

Lawrence Legard called the visit “impressive.” Legard graduated from UC Berkeley in 1971 with a degree in history and in 1974 with a master’s degree in library science.

“It was wonderful to finally see (the off-site library facility) in person,” he said. “Learning about the different spaces was fascinating.”

Top to bottom: Left to right: Converse shows visitors the book-sizing system for storage in the newest NRLF building; Lawrence Legard looks at some of the facility’s books.

Special features

University Librarian Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, who retires this month, kicked off the event by sharing details about NRLF. He likened the tour to a backstage pass.

“This is a behind-the-scenes look at how a large research library is able to support as much content and as many people as we do,” he said. “And we couldn’t do this (work) without you.”  

NRLF Director Salwa Ismail then detailed the facility’s immense value for students and scholars.

“We’re way more than a book depository,” said Ismail, who is also UC Berkeley’s associate university librarian for digital initiatives and information technology. “We’re a reading room. We provide interlibrary loan services. There’s mass digitization. It’s all happening here.”

NRLF is one of two such facilities serving the libraries at all 10 University of California campuses. An integrated management system enhances resource sharing. If UC Berkeley deposits a book, for example, a scholar at UC Davis can access it. That means Davis doesn’t need to purchase a copy. NRLF also holds materials in perpetuity, so users can depend on access over time. About 80 percent of the current collection comes from UC Berkeley.  

The facility, which opened in 1983, commits to an astounding two-day turnaround time from the time of request receipt. Courier services drive materials between the universities and NRLF each day.

Before the tour, NRLF Operations Manager Tim Converse gave an overview of the facility’s history. Converse, a UC Berkeley graduate, has worked at NRLF since 2001.

The facility’s modular design allows for the construction of more spaces as needed. The most recent addition, known as Phase 4, opened in 2020. It should hold nearly 3 million volumes, increasing NRLF’s volume count to about 10.5 million over the next decade.

Top to bottom: Left to right: A worker shelves books at NRLF while donors tour the space; books await shipping to various UC campuses.

Hoard tour

As Converse led the supporters through the facility, he peppered them with details. He also answered a slew of questions from the curious crowd.

Among the highlights was an explanation of the inventory management system. The system, which relies on barcodes (and detail-obsessed staff members), can pinpoint an item’s location in seconds.  

That retrieval speed wowed Legard, who said he was “over the moon” hearing about it. 

Digitization is another service available at NRLF. The team digitizes articles for UC users at no cost. The users don’t need to come to the facility or request physical materials. Scanned articles ship within two days ​​from the time of request receipt. 

Just 17 full-time staff members and a handful of student employees make this work possible. Converse said the facility processes about 90,000 new deposits each year, and fulfills roughly 35,000 item requests, or about 140 per workday.  

The tour culminated with a visit to Phase 4. As the giant metal door slid open, supporters’ gazes drifted upward. Imposing metal shelves, 30 feet tall, pressed toward the distant ceiling. Several gasps echoed through the massive space.

Over the next decade, books and other materials will pack the still mostly empty shelves. The items will stay crisp at a cool 60 degrees, with 40 percent relative humidity. And history will remain at scholars’ fingertips.  

Perhaps the person at the back of the room best summed up the group’s sentiments. Looking up at the towering stacks, he whispered, “This is awesome.”

If you are interested in learning more about NRLF, contact the Library Development Office at