Making way for the new reading room

Making way for the new reading room
Keeping our collection safe during the Level 1 construction works
19 September 2014

A new Special Collections Reading Room for the National Library of Australia has been planned for the first floor for a while now. The intention has been to open up more of the beautiful parts of the library to the public, and to make it easier for researchers to work with our different collections. You can read more about the reading room design and future plans in our visitor information pages.

For many years the first floor has been the engine room of the Library’s collection management teams. Making space for the new reading room has led to an intricate dance of staff moves on the floor, designed to free up space for construction. Most of us have now settled into our new desks and we've all become used to redirecting people who are confused by the new floor layout. Thankfully no one ended up on the balcony!

A librarian feeling chilly on the Level 1 balcony

The wind can be quite cold out there, so we're grateful there was space for us indoors.

Our primary focus, as well as looking after our people, has been to look after the collection material we process. There are plenty of tricks we can employ to keep everything in pristine condition during such an upheaval. One change many of us have made is keeping fewer collection items on our desks. In our jobs it’s easy to collect "problem" books that are a little harder to catalogue than others. But every book on our desks is a book at risk of exposure to plaster dust as the builders are working round the clock. We try to have as little collection material as possible remaining on our desks at the end of the day. If they must linger, we put them under shelves, in drawers or otherwise out of the way.

Some books and box sets stored beneath a shelf on a librarian's desk

Books and box sets sheltering from dust while waiting to be catalogued.

While we will definitely be doing this until the new reading room is complete, it’s a good practice to get into anyway.

A significant impact for us has been the relocation and downsizing of our storage areas (mailrooms) for unprocessed books. The building works included plans for a new and larger shared mailroom which necessitated moving all the collection material.

Two librarians opening parcels and placing new books on our intake shelves.

The daily parcels in our old mailroom, 2001. We get approximately 30-70 new books per day.

As with any self-respecting large building project, the work to relocate the mailroom was done in stages and as is often the way, we got little notice to move the books, and also had to move them twice!

People worked in shifts for the first move so that nobody was lifting or carrying too many heavy books for too long (we all grew more muscles that day!) After we had moved the material we put up plastic sheeting to protect it against the dust from the nearby deconstruction of the old storage area. The builders then put up hoardings around the construction areas so they could do their thing while keeping noise, dust, and rubble in the building site, and away from the books.

Plastic sheeting taped down over a wall covered in bookshelves, which are full of books.

The plastic sheeting being put in place, and removed, was a big job.

With the hoardings up, it was safe to pull the plastic sheeting down again. It was business as usual for a few weeks, and then construction on the new mailroom was complete and ready for the second move of material. We got the moving crew back together and moved the collection material to its shiny new shared mailroom.

A large room with empy bookshelves and flat wide drawers under a large table.

It is taking us some time to get used to the vastness.

Our new mailroom is huge, and rightly so. It's designed to replace two old mailrooms and cope with all of the Australian and Overseas books, maps, posters and sheet music. There are drawers, shelves and tables for everything!

A flat maps draw extended open with some maps on it

With a new big window, we can look in from outside the room and see what’s in there. It looks a bit like a maternity ward with all the trolleys of books lined up under the window.

Two book carts are visible through a glass window. One book cart has a stuffed toy inside. A sign saying "Maternity Ward ; It's a book!" is taped to the inside of the window.

Congratulations, it's a book!

All of the above activity was just to make sure that our collection material is secure, clean, and stable, while we steadily catalogue and physically process it all. While our biggest move is over for the books, construction continues on the floor and we’ll keep a keen eye out for dust and continually re-assess the risks that come from such large scale refurbishment (we’re keeping our plastic sheeting handy just in case!).

It’s a long process but when the first researchers come up those stairs and into the new Special Collections Reading Room, it will all have been worthwhile.