A Real Page Turner
You might say this is a business that does things by the book. But that tells only part of the story. It also stores, moves, cleans, and inventories everything from maps to photographs; from pieces of art to railroad equipment. And if you called National Library Relocations a ‘volume business,’ that wouldn’t exactly be accurate, either. Here, they measure collections in linear inches and feet — lots of them. In fact, just last summer, the company, with a huge warehouse in Palmer, moved more than 20 miles of books.
As she walked among the seemingly endless rows of books, journals, and boxes of photographs, Diane Pikul stopped to admire what is easily one of the more intriguing items now in her care.
And one that, like those books on the shelves, tells a story. Well, sort of.
The old train lantern is from the collection owned by the National Railway Historical Society. Pikul, Northeast regional sales manager for National Library Relocations (NLR), looked for some clue as to how old this artifact was, and couldn’t find one. She did learn, however, that the lantern was put to use in Chicago.
It is stored next to a large wooden rack that once held dozens of train schedules, an indication of just how dominant that mode of transportation was a century ago and even 60 years ago. And it’s just one small part of a collection measured not in pieces, or volumes, as one might expect, but in linear feet, as will be explained later.
The story it helps tell? Well, it’s more the NLR story than anything else.
Indeed, the railway historical society’s library was kept in the Robert Morris Building in Philadelphia’s Center City, a handsome Gothic Revival structure built in 1914 by hotelier Rutherford Jennings that later served as a college dormitory and academic building and then as an office tower until 2007. That’s when it was acquired by 806 Capital with designs to remake it into a hotel, plans that were scuttled by the recession and later revamped to feature upscale apartments.
We’re unique because we can offer customers a unique blend of experience from the fields of architecture, library science, and transportation.”
To make a long story short, the NRHS needed a new home for its library collection — and it still needs one, although Pikul says it’s closing in on a site. The extended search for new quarters, which has featured a number of twists and turns, explains why this collection, which was supposed to be in NLR’s care for maybe a year or two, has now been at the company’s location in the old Tambrands complex in Palmer for close to a decade.
“It’s a really fascinating collection and a great client — they’re a joy to work with,” said Pikul, who deploys such language to talk about most every client — and means it when she says it.
Indeed, the client list includes some of the most famous and revered institutions in the world, from Harvard University to the Smithsonian to the Clark Art Institute. And what NRL provides to those clients is solutions to problems, or issues.
They range from renovations to fallout from natural disasters; forced relocations (like the NRHS’s) to simple space limitations, which many facilities are now facing.
That constituency includes Wellesley College, which currently stores thousands of books and journals at NLR. Collectively, these items fall into the category of “lesser-used,” said Pikul, which doesn’t mean not used. Indeed, requests from students and teachers at the renowned women’s college for items in the stacks at NLR come in almost daily — with the volume increasing during finals week, she noted, adding that they are overnighted and in the hands of those who requested them within 24 hours.
It also includes Bay Path College, Springfield Technical Community College, and a host of other clients, she said, adding that long-term (or what could also be considered permanent) storage is just one line on the company’s list of services.
Others include far more temporary storage for libraries dealing with some of those aforementioned issues, especially renovations and expansions, and also cleaning of collections, inventorying items, and, as the name of the business suggests, moving them as well.
“We’re unique because we can offer customers a unique blend of experience from the fields of architecture, library science, and transportation,” said Pikul, a former librarian at STCC, as she explained what sets the company apart.
And despite those rumors that the Internet will soon make books and libraries somewhat obsolete, Pikul is firmly of the belief that this is a growth industry. Indeed, as more books are published and institutions grapple with space limitations, storing lesser-used books, as Wellesley and other schools do, is far less costly than building an addition or a new library, she explained.
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at a rapidly growing company in a truly unique industry, a business that continues to add new chapters to a compelling success story.
Reading Between the Lines
Pikul has a large, well-appointed office within NLR’s 28,000-square-foot home in what is now known as the Palmer Technology Center, home to dozens of small businesses. But you won’t find her there much these days.
Instead, she’s on assignment, if you will, handling aspects of a massive initiative involving several of the Five Colleges in the Amherst-Northampton area to relocate parts of their vast library collections in a huge annex now being constructed on a 12-acre parcel in Hatfield.
Due to open in the spring, the facility will have the capacity to shelve 2.1 million to 2.5 million volumes, which is sorely needed because the space now being used by the colleges — the famous Cold War-era bunker built into the side of Bare Mountain in the Holyoke Range in 1957 — has now reached capacity.
The current schedule calls for starting to move things in May, said Pikul, adding that much of her time over the past several months has been spent on this project — “I go into the office on weekends to do payroll; people like to get paid,” she joked — in preparation for the move. NLR has been hired to clean items and get them ready for travel, storage, and, if needed, retrieval.
And in many ways, the annex project, although much larger in size and scope than most initiatives, is exemplary of what the company does and how it does it.
NLR goes — meaning Pikul usually goes — where its clients need it to go, be it to area libraries or to the University of the Pacific’s main campus in Stockton, Calif. (she and other team members will be going there next month to measure a collection in advance of a renovation project), or to Harvard’s campus in Cambridge, where NLR handled a number of projects over the years, including the relocation of one of the its collections to China.
“That was a fun project … that library was shipped to the Ocean University in Qingdao,” she said, searching her memory bank for details on a project undertaken a dozen years ago. “We packed the books into boxes and then used conveyor belts to put the boxes into sea containers; it took a few months for the books to get there, and they used a manual I wrote to put the collection back on shelves; everything is packed left to right and top to bottom.”
Such projects help explain why Pikul, who has been with NLR for nearly two decades now, talks repeatedly about just how much she enjoys what she does.
“I love my job — I think I have the best job in the world. We have terrific clients, and helping them with their collections is very rewarding work,” she said, adding that her role blends elements of library science, architecture, mathematics (adding up all those linear feet), and even antiquities. The company moved a Gutenberg Bible on one of its assignments, for example, and more valuable items stored at the Palmer site, including some pictures of trains owned by the NRHS, are kept in what’s known as the ‘inner-sanctum room,’ which features additional security and climate control.
Our story begins nearly 50 years ago with NLR President Scott Miller. He was working for a company that was part of the Allied Van Lines family in the mid-’60s when his unit was assigned the task of moving a library. Eventually, the company — and Miller — became good at this kind of work. After struggling to find employment after graduating from college with a degree in architecture, Miller returned to Allied (and moving libraries) before starting his own venture in 1985.
Then, as now, libraries comprised the main focus, said Pikul, adding that, from the beginning, there has always been a steady supply of work, because there are tens of thousands of school, college, and municipal libraries, as well as museums and archives, and eventually, most all of them will require some of the services offered by the company.
This is made clear by a look at NLR’s portfolio of projects. It’s broken down by year, and each one has dozens of bullet-pointed undertakings.
In 2011, for example, the company did work with almost every college in the Ivy League, including Harvard (a frequent customer, as noted), Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania. But the ledger also lists work with dozens of other colleges, several school libraries, nearly two dozen public libraries, a medical library, and several ‘special libraries,’ including those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and Travis Air Force Base in California.
The consistency and high volume of work is also reflected in Pikul’s comments about next summer — and the one after that, as well — because that is traditionally the busiest time of year as colleges and public schools try to get work done when students are on break.
“This coming summer is completely booked,” she said slowly and without acknowledging there was a decent pun within that explanation. “This past week, I’ve been telling people, ‘we’ve been booked for eight months now; I can’t even give you a quote.’ They call and say, ‘we’d like to move in May,’ and I say, ‘this May, really?’
“When things are really good, we’re booked a year in advance,” she went on. “I have several projects booked for 2018 already.”
Good Story Lines
As she talked about the various forms of work undertaken by NLR, Pikul said that, as one might expect, part of it is simple physical labor — loading books onto trucks (or shipping containers, as in that case involving Harvard mentioned earlier) and transporting them to and from the warehouse in Palmer, or to other locations, including China.
But the vast majority of this work would be described as both delicate and intricate, undertaken by people — a good deal of them retired librarians or educators — who have an understanding of books and library science itself.
Indeed, Pikul and those she works with (mostly on a project basis, although she is hopeful to add more permanent employees in the future) have a thorough understanding of not simply the Dewey Decimal System, but the many other library classification methods.
These include the Library of Congress System, the Cutter System, the Pettee, or Union Classification System, and many others, she said, adding that this cumulative knowledge enables the company to play an invaluable consultative role for clients and potential clients.
Elaborating, she said NLR representatives can provide advice on everything from how much space to leave for a collection or parts of it (not only for today but years and decades down the road) to how to design a library or expansion, to the best course of action when mold attacks a book or a collection — which it often does.
And Pikul, as you might expect by now, is well-versed on that subject as well.
“My staff is trained to recognize mold issues,” she said. “Sometimes, you get dead mold, which you can just wipe right off. But sometimes it can be colorful — black or psychedelic (I’ve seen some interesting things out there), and that’s when our staff knows enough to stop, recognize that there’s something wrong, and bring the item to me.
“If it’s a small thing, we can treat it with isopropyl alcohol, isolate the item, see how it dries, and then decide whether it can go back in the collection,” she went on. “If it’s really, really bad, those spores can spread and get into carpeting and curtains and upholstery.”
Meanwhile, simple cleaning of books is not exactly simple, she said, adding that great care is taken to preserve the materials, meaning no chemicals are used in these processes.
Actually, there are several options for clients when it comes to cleaning, depending on how serious they want to get with such an undertaking.
“If they’re going from one building to another, and it’s a newer collection, we can do a reverse vacuum where we just blow the dust off the tops of the books,” she explained. “We can do a light cleaning where we’re doing the spines and the tops of the books just to get the surface dust off, and then there’s a really detailed cleaning we’ve done for some clients, especially special collections, where we clean all six sides of the book and wipe the shelf down using cloth treated with mineral oil so it’s anti-static and you’re not getting dust glomming back onto the shelf.”
The vacuums are triple-filtered, like those used in hospitals, and the brushes used are made of natural horse hair so as not to scratch the items, she went on, adding that attention to details like this has enabled NLR to become one of the top companies nationally in what is now a highly competitive field.
Looking forward, Pikul said the company is looking to grow, has the capacity to do it — there is considerably more space at the Palmer Technology Park for the company to rent if it so desires, and it has already expanded several times — and the need will certainly be there.
As evidenced by the massive project in Hatfield involving the Five Colleges, schools, public libraries, and other kinds of institutions will continue to add to their collections, and many will need help storing, cleaning, and moving items, or perhaps all of the above.
Part of the growth equation is education, said Pikul, adding that libraries need to understand that those assignments listed above are not — or should not be — do-it-yourself projects.
Thus, the best marketing strategy the company has is word-of-mouth referrals, and there have been hundreds of those over the years, she told BusinessWest.
“We rely on testimonials — they’re very important in this business because of the work that’s involved and the trust that clients are putting in us,” she explained, adding that the phone is ringing even more often these days thanks to the company finally earning placement on the state bid list for such projects involving the moving of libraries.
As for those references to linear feet, Pikul actually summoned a different unit of measure to convey how busy this company has been.
Indeed, just last summer — remember, that’s the busy season — it moved some 20 miles of books.
How many volumes is that? Pikul doesn’t know, and doesn’t really care, because that number is not particularly relevant; 500 children’s books would certainly take up far less space than 500 books from a law library.
This is just one of the many intriguing nuances in a business where things are done by the book — and the journal, map, microfilm box, and, yes, train lantern.
That’s what makes it so fascinating, and enjoyable, to Pikul, and why it’s a business story that has become a real page turner.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com