NRLF, in Richmond, is running out of space. Here’s what’s next for the storage complex.

The British Library’s old main reading room is a sight to behold.

At the center of the domed room — built in the 1850s and inspired by the Pantheon in Rome — is a carousel. After a visitor makes a request, the book makes its way to the middle of the circular floor, like magic, where the guest retrieves it.

Victoria Frede-Montemayor still remembers her first peek behind the curtain.

It was 1994, and Frede-Montemayor was at the library, in London, looking for a volume for her master’s thesis.

There was just one problem: The journal was in Russian, a language that the staff didn’t understand. But Frede-Montemayor did. They had no choice but to take her back to the stacks, a space usually unseen by the public.

“I got to see the inner workings of this knowledge machine,” said Frede-Montemayor, a self-described library fanatic who has worked at some of the most prominent libraries in the world, from the Library of Congress to the Russian State Library, in Moscow. “To me, it was a magical moment to see where all the knowledge comes from.”

“When I came to Berkeley, NRLF was kind of the same thing,” said Frede-Montemayor, who arrived at Berkeley as a grad student in 1996 and returned in 2005 as a professor of Russian history.

Seven miles northwest of Berkeley — and a world away from London — the Northern Regional Library Facility, often referred to as NRLF — is a densely packed oasis of shared knowledge, brimming with materials from Northern California libraries in a variety of formats, from newspapers to maps to books of all sizes to motion pictures to audio recordings. Along with its counterpart, SRLF, in Los Angeles, NRLF ships its materials to libraries throughout the University of California system, as well as outside institutions — providing a wealth of vital information to a broad audience of researchers and creators around the world.

And NRLF is growing. In March, the UC Regents gave final approval and full funding to the $32.5 million expansion of NRLF, called Phase 4, which will add the capacity for 3.1 million more print materials, and will provide a cost-effective way to store valuable knowledge for years to come, benefitting researchers at UC Berkeley and beyond.

“While we enthusiastically embrace the digital age, we’re also dedicated to preserving civilization’s cultural record, much of which is in print,” University Librarian Jeffrey MacKie-Mason said. “We know we can preserve print materials for hundreds of years. This move will allow us to not only free up high-demand campus spaces for other uses, but also store and connect this wealth of shared resources with scholars well into the future.”

Reshelving books in NRLF
Ellen Dario, head of access services at NRLF, reshelves items at the Northern Regional Library Facility in Richmond in January. (Photo by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

A new kind of facility

NRLF is a mammoth, but unassuming, complex of beige and brick red.

In fact, passers-by might not realize the facility, which sits on a pastoral swath of land just 10 minutes north of the Richmond Inner Harbor, is a goldmine of knowledge: With 11 floors and 410,000 linear feet of shelving, NRLF holds more than 7 million volumes. The estimated value of the materials housed here is north of a billion dollars.

Outside the facility, it’s calm and quiet. Every once in a while, you’ll see wildlife — a turkey or a fox.

“It’s a wonderfully peaceful setting that (some) students and researchers value as a quiet study space,” said Jutta Wiemhoff, the Northern Regional Library Facility’s operations manager, during a recent visit.

There’s just one problem: With about 140,000 new items coming in each year, the facility is running out of space — fast. To maximize density, materials at the facility are sorted by size, and space for the two most popular sizes (monographs and journals) is projected to run out by January of next year.

Enter Phase 4.

Books on shelvesA tiny bookMagazines and journalsDrawers at NRLFRecordsWoman working at front desk
Top to bottom: Clockwise from left: NRLF holds shelves upon shelves of items, including books, magazines and journals, microfiche, and records. Noel Gundestrup, access services assistant at NRLF, checks in books. (Photos by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

A few years ago, with the fill date at NRLF looming, Frede-Montemayor took up the cause of advocating for the facility’s expansion. When she was a member of the Academic Senate Library Committee, she was instrumental in writing a 10-page report, describing the problem and recommending expansion. She even came up with the idea of making a blog, called Advocates for NRLF, and a Facebook page to help drum up support and enthusiasm. (Frede-Montemayor, who had never created a Facebook page or a blog, enlisted an undergraduate research assistant, Sierra Barton, to help her.)

“That was a pivotal moment in seeing we have the support of the faculty members,” said Erik Mitchell, who, over the past two years, helped lead the effort of advocating for and planning NRLF’s upcoming expansion, as director of NRLF and UC Berkeley’s associate university librarian for digital initiatives and collaborative services. “That sort of faculty support paved the way on this campus and every other campus in getting support for the project.”

Others, such as Susan Carlson, vice provost for academic personnel and programs in the Office of the President, provided crucial support and advocacy to move the project through UC review and approval processes.

“Getting to this stage is only due to the support of a lot of people — from our staff at the NRLF to President (Janet) Napolitano and the UC Regents,” Mitchell said.

Fast-forward to today. Construction on the new phase of NRLF will start soon, with plans to break ground in early 2019 — “after the rain stops,” Mitchell said. NRLF Phase 4 is projected to open for deposits in December of 2020.

Phase 4 is the latest in a series of expansions at NRLF, each one extending the capacity of the facility to ensure NRLF can continue to store information and serve researchers into the future.

The main building, spanning 98,000 square feet, was completed in 1982. Expansions in 1990 and 2005 added a combined 151,000 square feet of storage space — and, in the case of the latter expansion, a reading room. (“There’s hardly a day when we don’t have people there,” Wiemhoff said.)

Occupying the grassy nook where Phase 2 abuts Phase 3, the new building will be different than its predecessors.

Phase 4 will have a gross square footage of 26,000, with shelves that are 3 feet deep (double the depth of the shelves in Phases 1 and 2), and the capacity to hold more books than the expansion that came before it.

At over 30 feet tall, the new building will be the same height as the first two, but it will be different in a major way: It will lack aluminum floors that separate the tiers of materials. Instead, the folks at NRLF will carefully pluck items from high on the shelves using a cherry picker, or lift truck. (“It’s not a standard job for a library,” Wiemhoff said.)

Exterior of NRLFStorage in Phase One
Left to right: NRLF has a reading room and patio seating; overflow materials will be placed along the walls of Phase 2, shown here, and Phase 3 while Phase 4 is built. (Photos by Cade Johnson for the UC Berkeley Library)

‘The greenest green light’

With a fill date coming up early next year, before the opening of the new facility, where will the overflow materials go in the meantime?

The folks at NRLF have that covered. With fire marshal approval, materials will be carefully stored on the cleaned floors of multiple levels of Phases 2, and 3 and journals will go on top of the shelves on one floor of Phase 2 to compensate for overflow while Phase 4 is in the works.

Phase 4 will be built to meet the needs of the 10 University of California campuses for 10 years, according to Mitchell.

Last month, Mitchell departed after five years at the UC Berkeley Library to become the university librarian at UC San Diego. The move comes just weeks after the Regents’ approval of Phase 4, but his involvement in the project will continue for a brief period as he starts his new position.

“(The Regents’ approval) is the greenest green light we needed to be sure we could really move forward with construction,” Mitchell said. “There are still mileposts along the way we have to clear and plan for, but this March Regents meeting was really about affirming the design and the use and the value of the facility.”

Maps at NRLF
Jutta Wiemhoff, NRLF operations manager, shows maps stored at the facility. (Photo by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

‘Visions and dreams’

One day, not long after Mitchell arrived at the UC Berkeley Library, Charlotte Rubens, the operations manager at NRLF before Wiemhoff, gave Mitchell a copy of the so-called Salmon Report, something he had never seen before. (The actual name of the report is The University of California Libraries: A Plan for Development, 1978-1988, but its nickname comes from Stephen R. Salmon, executive director of universitywide library planning, whose office released it.)

“That report is the DNA of who we are today,” Mitchell said of the 200-plus-page manifesto, which was published when he was only 6 years old. “The things that are laid out as visions and dreams in the document came to reality.”

Among those visions was the idea of the regional library facilities, which the report called “differential housing” — “one in the North and one in the South.”

Within the ensuing decade after the report was published, both facilities have become a reality, proving since they opened to have tremendous value.

According to one analysis, to hold a single book in an open library stack, like the ones on Berkeley’s campus, costs $4.26 per year. But at a high-density storage facility, like NRLF, it costs less — $0.86, in 2009 dollars. (“It’s a huge financial savings,” Mitchell said.) And the cost benefits can be extrapolated nationwide.

“When you send a book to NRLF, you are assured we will try our best to keep that book forever,” Mitchell said.

The materials at NRLF are held under carefully controlled conditions — the map and book storage areas, for example, are kept at 60 degrees and 50 percent relative humidity — potentially adding hundreds of years of lifetime to the items, helping ensure that they will be around for new generations of researchers and scholars to explore.

Victoria Frede-Montemayor, the professor of Russian history, was “overjoyed” when she found out NRLF’s Phase 4 was approved.

When she was a grad student at Berkeley, Frede-Montemayor would visit NRLF, packing a sandwich before taking the bus along the bay to Richmond.

She remembers one day in particular, in the springtime, when she took the trek to the facility. Upon her arrival, to her delight, the whole facility was surrounded by monarch butterflies.

“It’s beautiful,” she said of NRLF.

Today, as a professor, Frede-Montemayor uses NRLF extensively. While working on her dissertation and first book, she estimates she borrowed about a thousand books from NRLF. And she relies on the facility’s materials for her journal articles just as heavily. (“All of my research depends on NRLF,” she said.)

For Frede-Montemayor, any library is “like a sacred place” — “a container of knowledge,” as she puts it — and NRLF is no exception.

“It’s a repository, it’s a library,” she said. “It’s a magical thing.”