Stefan Elnabli, Space is the Place

Over the course of my time as a MISL fellow at Northwestern University Library, I have begun to understand the many institutional challenges of managing disparate media collections in a large research library. One of the greatest challenges that we currently face is SPACE. Space is the place, man, right?

Both physical storage and digital storage are of increasing concern as the library continues to accession media into its collections, and reformat materials for preservation and access in digital formats. There are thousands of archival reels of film and thousands of archival magnetic media items in both audio and video formats. In addition, the library has been providing digital media services for faculty, staff, and researchers for over a decade, which includes the digitization of still images, audio, and video to be used by faculty, students, and patrons in classes and personal research. As such, the library is a busy production environment where materials are being digitized in-house constantly and storage fills up quickly. Moreover, as the library digitizes archival film, audio, and video for preservation, and as resultant uncompressed file formats accumulate, digital storage requirements become enormous.

I have been focusing on collections within different departments of the library: the University Archives, the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, and the Mitchell Multimedia Center. Each collection is arranged according to different systems, tracked by different methods, and stored in separate locations unique environmental conditions. Current storage practices are being reevaluated both to maximize space and to conform to best practices for storing each media type.


The largest collection I am working with—2425 reels of 16mm film that document the Northwestern Wildcats, the university’s football team—resides in the library's underground storage facility. Produced by the Athletics Department from 1929 to 1989, the collection now belongs to the University Archives. Conditions are luxurious by some standards, with enough shelving space to keep all the films flat like flapjacks (as they should be), in an environmentally controlled and ventilated area. But that cannot be said of other film collections in the library, many of which compete for space in crowded shelving situations or must endure potentially harmful environmental conditions. For these collections, the reorganization of space to meet basic needs, as well as monitored environmental controls, is a must while the films are cored and placed in archival cans.


The institutional challenge of space, both physical and digital, is not unique to Northwestern University Library. Libraries all over face constant rearrangement of existing collections, and the accommodation of new ones on a daily basis. The task at hand is to understand media storage requirements and to balance ideal practices with situational realities. And, yes: Space IS the place, man.


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