It is a warehouse like any other,” Fran Johnson tells me. Fran is probably in her late twenties, pudgy-cheeked, buxom, effusive. There is something solid yet soft about her: she stands with her feet shoulder-width apart and volunteers information like a well-stocked jukebox. A phrase from me – “and this room?” – and she is on to the next topic, her heaving bosom punctuating her speech as she goes. In her bright red jersey emblazoned with “PHILLIES” across the front, Fran hardly looks like a librarian and she knows it. “We don’t have to dress up,” she explains when I ask her about the jersey. “All we do, really, is just handle the books.”
Fran, like her colleagues, handles a lot of books. Two to six hundred a day, she tells me, although that is but a small fraction of the books housed at ReCAP – 6,985,861 by the latest count. The acronym ReCAP unfolds to “the Research Collections and Preservations Consortium,” and preservation is the facility’s main task. This ‘warehouse like any other,’ houses many if not most of the books owned by the Princeton University, Columbia University, and New York Public libraries. ReCAP is thus a cultural repository of sorts, a Shangri-La James Hilton could be proud of in the middle of Central New Jersey.
Unlike Hilton’s Shangri-La, however, ReCAP has few aesthetic pleasures to offer. Nestled away in a quasi-industrial, quasi-wild park off U.S. Route 1, ReCAP looks strikingly just like whatever computer-generated model it was fashioned from. Its art deco style relief work is just too mathematically precise; its two glass walls are tinted an unreal, steely shade of blue. The only enjoyable aspect of its outer appearance is the play in proportion between its several wings – variously sized rectangles rhythmically arrayed together. Each houses one of the center’s five “modules”: high-density, environmentally-controlled storage rooms, as the center’s website describes them. Plans for a sixth one are underway, and Fran leads me to the glass wall to demonstrate where exactly it is to be built. “It’ll go right over there,” she points, her finger hitting the window-pane, “right in front of that…whatever that is…I think it’s a lab,” she finally whispers.
ReCAP was built in 2002 on Princeton’s James Forrestal Campus – previously home to Project Matterhorn, the hydrogen bomb research initiative, and the Princeton-Penn Accelerator, a “state-of-the art atom smasher” according to Princeton’s Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences program. The labs that punctuate the landscape around ReCAP are leftovers of that bygone era of the nuclear arms race, but ReCAP is not wholly alien to the mindset that had created them.
Certainly ReCAP is no underground vault, but staring at its thick walls of yellow brick, one cannot help noting how wonderfully safe the books contained within them must be. This is no Alexandrine library: despite its somewhat hologram-like appearance, it is a facility that has been built to last, that seems destined to last long after we are gone. In other words, it is something only children of the Cold War generation could have conceived of, planned, and built.
ReCAP, however, is no ultimate repository of Culture, and the books housed here are far from the best Western civilization has to offer. Monographs on the medicinal properties of various plants and untold histories of quaint French villages lie here in acid-free containers alongside doctoral dissertations on obscure authors and novels that never saw the commercial success their authors aspired to. ReCAP thus serves as a sort of limbo – the place for books not successful enough as to be assured a future of frequent use, nor so unsuccessful as to be discarded.
This mission is reflected in the way books at ReCAP are treated. Alphabetical order, call numbers, or even subject matter are all meaningless here. Any book arriving at ReCAP is instantly judged by one criterion only: its size. And even that is regimented – there are only sixteen options on ReCAP’s sizing chart. Once books are sized-up, they are assigned to one of 37 ladders (“vertical shelving sections,” Fran explains) along one of 6 aisles in one of the 5 existing modules. The only time they will leave their assigned place is if someone in Princeton, NJ or New York City requests them. Then, employees will scamper to identify the book, retrieve it, and ship it to the proper library branch. There is no browsing permitted here. No eating or drinking, smoking, or even checking your email. Those must all be done in the proper antechambers – the staff cafeteria and community room off to the right of the gray main corridor. Once employees enter the processing area to the left, they become like angels that need neither physical sustenance nor distraction. “Yep, it’s just a warehouse like any other,” Fran repeats, adding this time: “only it’s so neat and pristine it’s unreal.”
ReCAP is an institution that provides, but does not give. A strange kind of resistance is at play within it. It is a place meant to comfort the scholarly soul with the vast, monolithic whole of its existence, without letting it in on the details – if you’d like those, you’d better schedule a private tour. Despite Fran’s loquaciousness, she cannot show me more than the very front of the building – a shabby reception area that looks just like a doctor’s office without the fun magazines: three rickety armchairs, small coffee table, a bad décor painting in deep blue.
The reserved “reading room” is likewise drab: gray upholstered office chairs surround a darker gray conference-room table that stands on even darker gray carpeting. It is a room that is there if you need it, but it is not the kind of room you would ever want. So it is with ReCAP. An appendage to some of the world’s greatest libraries, it has none of their solemnity or their pomp. Instead, it stands among laboratories that have half fallen into disuse and wild sprawling fields, a testament to the sacred nature of the written word, a reminder that wisdom is, after all, cumulative and that if we are careful enough to preserve as much as possible, we might, just might, hit that necessary critical mass to ––
But that is as far as our thought can carry us for the time being.