A Look inside the Preservation Centre

Colour image of columns and glass front of Library and Archives Canada’s Preservation Centre. 042: A Look inside the Preservation Centre
December 19, 2017

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Ever wonder where Library and Archives Canada (LAC) stores, protects and preserves Canada’s diverse and rich documentary heritage? Join us for this episode as we take you on a walking tour of LAC’s Preservation Centre in Gatineau, Quebec, to celebrate its 20th anniversary. On our tour, we will guide you through the Preservation Centre, discussing its award-winning architecture and offering insight into how we store and preserve our national treasures.

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Podcast Transcript

A Look inside the Preservation Centre

Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

Ever wonder where Library and Archives Canada stores, protects and preserves Canada’s diverse and rich documentary heritage? Well if you’ve listened to other episodes of this podcast, then you’ve probably heard us mention the Preservation Centre in Gatineau, Quebec. This facility, the crown jewel of documentary preservation in Canada, just happens to be celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2017. And spoiler alert: it’s awesome.

On today’s episode, we’ll be taking you on a walking tour of this state-of-the-art facility to give you better insight into how we store and preserve our national treasures.

To view photos of the Preservation Centre while you’re listening, or afterwards, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast. Or, you can simply google “LAC Flickr album” to find it.

The following is a quote from an article by Brian Carter published in Canadian Architect Magazine in February 1998. Quote: “The National Library and Archives retain Canada’s enduring but often fragmented cultural legacy, thereby helping us define who we are and where here is. The new building at Gatineau creates a convincing monumental place where the tangible evidence of the memory of a nation can be safely kept, and its identity made more transparent.” End quote.

Hi, Mario. Thanks for walking us through the Preservation Centre today.

Mario Gasperetti (MG): My pleasure.

GM: The voice you just heard was that of Mario Gasperetti. Mario is the manager of Investment Planning and Portfolio Management in the Real Property Branch of Library and Archives Canada. He graduated from Carleton University’s School of Architecture in 1992, and was present for the design, construction and move-in phases of the Preservation Centre, and continues to be involved in the on-going lifecycle work on the building.

Let’s head on out. Well actually, I’m going to let you start off by telling us what you usually tell people when they walk into this building firsthand.

MG: Okay, well you’re in one of the two storage spaces for Library and Archives Canada, actually our main storage spaces for collection. It was inaugurated in 1997, so 20 years ago this year. It replaced about a dozen warehouses in the National Capital Area that used to house the collections of Library and Archives Canada. None of those warehouses were designed as an archives facility, so they all had issues with water from the outside or from the plumbing systems of the buildings themselves. And so this project was to rectify the issue with collection storage for the National Archives.

GM: Wow. And can you tell us a little bit what we see when we walk in? It’s quite grandiose; it’s majestic; it’s impressive. What are we looking at when we walk in here?

MG: When you walk in, you arrive in a five-storey-high space and you’re immediately confronted by the three-storey-high vault structure out of poured concrete. So it looks very permanent. It speaks of safe storage. So immediately as you walk in, you know that this is a place for the safekeeping of records.

GM: And as someone who’s constantly thinking about lunch, I’m always reminded when I walk in, it’s kind of like a thermos where you keep your soup, isn’t it?

MG: Yeah, exactly. Yes, they’ve used the principal of a buffer zone, so the climate being what it is in the National Capital Area—with dramatic temperature and humidity swings between summer and winter—the vault structure is surrounded by a buffer zone, so a temperate zone in terms of temperature and humidity on all six sides. So the four sides of the vault structure, [and] on the top and on the bottom of it. Below us is a crawl space in which there’s no archival storage. It’s just for the mechanical distribution.

GM: Mmhmm.

The buffer zone that Mario talks about is the idea of a building within a building. In the case of the Preservation Centre, the larger glass structure keeps the inner vault structure from being directly exposed to outside temperatures and humidity.

MG: I should say that the idea of a buffer zone is not new to this building. Though the building looks very high-tech, it uses principles from the history of architecture. The ancient library in Ephesus—the library of Celsus—used the idea of a buffer zone there for a very different reason. It was a very warm and dry climate and in that case the book nooks were separate from the main structure of the building, again to create a buffer zone so to better control the temperature in the old library.

GM: Wow. That’s really interesting. And it was clearly not glass and concrete at that point. It was stone and wood.

MG: It was, yeah. It was built by the Romans, so stone and concrete, actually.

GM: Bugs love to eat the wood, don’t they? Speaking of bugs, actually, we do have—the design did take into account the fact that we’re kind of bug-proofing the surfaces here, aren’t we?

MG: It does. The pest control was a big issue in this building and one that was faced in the twelve or so buildings that I mentioned before. So here they again tried to rectify that project. Moving from the outside, you can see that there’s a big concrete plaza in front of the building so there is no grass that comes right along the building. And that’s true of all the perimeter of the building and that’s to prevent rodents and insects from being right next to the building and building their…terroirs—their…?

GM: Building their homes [laughing]?

MG: Building their homes [laughing], thank you, right next to the building. As you move into the building, the materials are very—are not organic. It’s poured concrete. And you can see too moving towards the vault structure that there’s again a relief, and that’s to prevent pests from finding their way into the vaults.

GM: So we’re looking at a very large space. How many square metres do we have here?

MG: The building is approximately 26,000 square metres rentable, so that’s the space that we use in our operations. About 32,000 square metres gross, so it’s a very large facility. And about 16,000 square metres of that is for collection storage.

GM: The storage space is spread out over 48 separate vaults. What type of stuff is in those 48 vaults? Well let’s see. We have about 30 million photographs, over 22 million books, 3 million maps, 250 kilometres of textual records, 550,000 hours of audio and video recordings and more than 425,000 Canadian works of art! Whoa. OK. Back to the walk-through…

I wanted to ask you as we’re walking up the ramp—so we’re heading towards the back of the building now and we’re walking up the side of the big concrete bunker and we’ve got the corrugated metal wall on one side and the concrete on the other. But if we look up at the ceiling, we’re seeing all these giant vents that are heading from the concrete bunker where the vaults are—where the collections are kept—outside, so that they’re crossing through the glass wall to the outside. What does this represent here?

MG: That’s actually another basic principle of the building. So as we saw a bit earlier, the vaults are in the centre of a buffer zone to protect them environmentally, and the mechanical rooms are off to the side of the building in a lean-to shed. And so what you’re seeing is all of the ducts bringing the air to the main buffer zone where we are and to the vaults themselves. And that was designed that way so that if there’s any malfunctioning equipment, if there’s a fire, if there’s a leak in one of the mechanical equipments, it’s self-contained in a separate building, not the main archival block.

GM: Controlling humidity and temperature is part of the meticulous science of preserving these cultural items. As Mario mentioned, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are located in a separate plant, off to the side of the main facility.

MG: The vaults have one of four environments ranging from 18 degrees Celsius, 50 per cent humidity, to minus 18 degrees, 35 per cent humidity, for colour motion picture film. And the air quality in the vaults is very, very pure. There’s seven different filters that the air goes through before reaching the vaults and the buffer zone where we are.

GM: Because we do have quite varying temperatures and levels of humidity in the environment here in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, so I guess that is quite an important consideration when you’re pumping air in and out of this building.

MG: It is, yeah. And the buffer zone also better protects the walls of the vaults. Typically in a building where you’re trying to control the humidity—if you’re keeping it constant throughout summer and winter—the outside humidity will either try to come into the building or leave the building. And it can cause damages to the exterior wall. So here by having the vault structure in the buffer zone, it protects the vault wall and it avoids that transfer of humidity.

GM: Next, we make a brief stop in the loading dock…So here we are on the very clean loading dock of the Gatineau Preservation Centre. You’ll notice that everything is always quite clean here, again to prevent pests and prevent the accumulation of dust, but as far as a place for storing trucks goes, it’s pretty nice.

MG: It is, yeah. It works very well as a loading dock, a very important operation for us because as I mentioned, we transport collections back and forth to our main public headquarters downtown. So this was a pivotal space for us. You’ll probably notice though that the air feels a bit more humid here than it did, say, in the buffer zone. It’s not conditioned at the same level as the buffer zone because archival material are only in transit here very shortly. So it doesn’t receive the same level of humidification or dehumidification that the main vault structure does.

GM: And that would be hard to control with the very large garage doors that are opening.

MG: It would, yeah. The bays accommodate three large trucks and the doors are open quite often during the day, so it would be very difficult to keep the environment. What they have done is there’s an air curtain, there’s a door that links this space to an archival space, an operational space right next to it. When they open the interior garage door to bring collections back and forth, there’s an air curtain that kicks in to prevent the transfer of moisture from this space into the next one.

GM: An air curtain! That sounds so cool.

MG: It does. It’s in fact very noisy and uncomfortable so the name is a bit misleading.

GM: [Laughs] So where to now, Mario?

MG: Let’s head towards the vaults. And again here you’ll feel the difference in humidity as we step back into the archival building.

[Sound of footsteps; sound of a door opening and closing]

So you can see here we’re on the ground floor of the building at the back. The loading dock as I mentioned is at ground level to avoid a ramp. And here you get kind of a glimpse into an operational space. We often get the question, “Did you not finish the space? [Geneviève laughs] Did you run out money? When are you going to put in drop ceilings?” The space was intended to be as you see it.

One of the main issues with the existing facilities that we had was that if there was a water leak, you would see—that leak would manifest itself several metres away. It was always difficult to find the source of the water leak. Here by exposing everything, we will know if there’s a water leak and we’ll be able to find it very quickly. Thankfully, there hasn’t been any. But it’s been designed that way. I should say it’s also a good—I think it’s a marriage with the architect’s philosophy. He likes to expose everything in the building. He likes the building to tell its story. So that worked very well with our requirement to have quick and easy access to all of the components of the facility.

GM: The architect that designed the Preservation Centre was Ron Keenberg. The architectural firm of Blouin, IKOY & Associates was awarded the contract back in 1992, five years before construction was to be completed. Mr. Keenberg and his associates have won multiple Governor General’s awards for a number of their projects, including the Preservation Centre.

Speaking of the exposed equipment though, it should be important to note that—or maybe you were going to talk about this later when we’re actually inside the vaults—but none of these things are running inside the vaults.

MG: That’s right. That’s another very important basic principle of the design of the facility was that the vaults are for storage only. So all of the services to the vaults—be it fresh air, mechanical, electricity—come either from the back wall or the front wall of the vaults. So nothing punctures a vault vertically and nothing communicates from one vault to another except for an emergency exit at the back of a vault. And that was again to limit any damage that might occur if there was a fire or a leak or pest infestation—anything like that would be limited to one single vault.

GM: So you’ll never be working in a vault and hear the horrifying sound of a drip-drip-drip?

LAC employee: No.

MG: Yes, yeah.


GM: —from the piping.

[Sound of footsteps]

MG: No, and in fact we’ll see a bit later in the vaults, but after having taken so many precautions to keep water out of the building through the basic design of the building, having a vault at the centre of a buffer zone covered by the main roof itself and even the roof of the vault structure is treated as if it was an exterior roof. So there’s a waterproof membrane on top of that concrete structure. So if any water was to find its way through the main roof down to the vault, it just pools on that main vault.

But after having taken all of those precautions you can imagine that when it came time to decide on a sprinkler system, that was a very difficult decision. [Sound of elevator dinging and carts being pushed] Ideally, we would have liked no sprinklers in the vaults. But that did not work with the fire commissioner’s office—the authority having jurisdiction. And so water sprinklers were decided on rather than chemical sprinklers but what they are is a dry-pipe system. So there’s no water in the vault itself. It’s all under pressure. And we’ve put the accent on early detection of a fire. There’s instruments called very early smoke detection alarm system—a VESDA system—and that monitors constantly the levels of various chemicals in the vaults. And it would pick up, for instance, the off-gassing given out by a slow-burning fire. Traditionally, the smoke detectors and the sprinklers would not react to a slow-burning fire because it doesn’t give off any smoke. It gives off very little heat. But the VESDA system would trigger an alarm and somebody has to go and investigate what’s going on. So very, very early in the eruption of a fire, we would get an alarm.

GM: So now we’re faced with something that’s very interesting. We’re about to enter the concrete bunker and we’re in front of a very simple set of double doors. And Mario’s going to use his magic wand.

No, not a real magic wand. It was actually just his work pass…

[Sound of a door opening]

GM: And we’re faced again with that really interesting combination of concrete, metal and just little pops of primary colours. We’ve got green, and yellow and a little bit of red. It does make your job a little more visually interesting.

MG: It does, yeah. And for anybody that’s interested in mechanical systems or electrical systems, this building is marvelous because you can see everything. So for students, say, who are taking mechanical engineering, architecture, this building has become on the tour list because you can see everything. Again as I said, everything is exposed, so quick and easy access to everything. It’s also a building where there’s a great deal of craft. Exposing everything means that those installing it had to be very careful about the way the various conduits run. Typically that’s hidden behind a ceiling so you don’t need to apply the same level of care. But if you look at the way a conduit will just counter around an obstacle—you can see especially in this one—it’s done very elegantly.

GM: Yeah.

MG: So there’s a great deal of craft in even just simple things as conduits in this buildings.

GM: I was actually going to remark that aesthetically when you walk in—when you’re thinking about interior design, you’re always thinking about sight lines—and you walk in here and the perspective is tremendously accentuated by the straight lines that are made by all these conduits running in the same direction, beautifully smooth and straight. It’s really, really nice. The eye just follows all the way to the end so you can see the length of this building. You can feel how big it is.

MG: You can, yeah. And you can start to appreciate too, here, the layout of the building. So a centre corridor of vaults with eight vaults on either side and you can see from the central corridor the air-returns from every single vault. You can see electrical conduits going into the vault, and yeah, the mechanical systems coming out into the main hallway.

At the far south end of the vault is a glass wall and that’s to allow some natural light into this corridor on all three floors; one, to reduce the requirement for lighting, and also just to produce an ambience that’s a bit more livable. It also, on the ground floor, allows visitors to get a sneak-peak into this main corridor. We could not add windows into the vaults because the vaults need to be in darkness for the long-term preservation of holdings. But this gives people just a sneak-peak into what the operations are at Library and Archives. If there was a fire, there’s a metal door that closes. As soon as there’s a fire alarm the metal doors close to protect the integrity of the vault structure because glass under heat will either kind of melt or shatter at a fairly low temperature. And so that was a requirement, again, to protect the vault structure.

GM: It’s amazing how much we’ve thought of everything for this building. And I was just thinking when you were pointing to the little electrical wires, it kind of feels like you’re in the belly of a beast, doesn’t it? You’ve got all these little vessels and connections that are going in and out just to keep it breathing and alive.

MG: It does, yeah. You know, here you in kind of the central nervous system, it seems. What you’re seeing is the spine for the sprinkler system, all of the electrical systems, and you talked about the decision—this building is one where most decisions could be traced back to what’s best for the holdings. That was the principle question when designing this building, as “How can we best protect these holdings and what are our options to do so?” So simple things like pest control, you can see there’s no baseboards. It’s a very clean floor.  There’s not many alcoves, again to limit pests. The whole idea of having services from the back and front wall so that you don’t have any vertical penetrations. So all of the decisions always had the question, “How best to protect the holdings?” at heart.

GM: It warms my heart to know that people put that much care into this building because this building is made to last how long? 500 years?

MG: Yes.

GM: Minimum?

MG: Minimum.

GM: [Laughs]

MG: Well, we know it’s made to last many generations. The 500 years was stated as a benchmark. But we know ancient Rome built with poured concrete. And their structures are still standing, so we know that the main structure of the facility is here for many, many generations. And that’s the most permanent—the vault was designed as the most permanent feature of the building. We know that that requirement won’t change over 10, 20, 40—you know, 100 years.

The remainder of the building is stainless steel, so again, a very long-lasting material, one that we won’t have to paint. Stainless steel was chosen so that we would not have to paint that steel. What you see is the raw steel, so again that’s very long-lasting. And on the 5th floor where all of the conservation labs are, we’ll see that it’s a completely different construction method. Whereas this is very permanent, long-lasting, that floor was designed with flexibility in mind because they realized that in an age of digitization and of advancements in technology, the way you build permanence into labs are to have them flexible.

GM: We’ll talk more about the 5th floor a little later when we make out way up there. Now, let’s venture into one of the vaults!


MG: Do you want to go into one of the vaults—

GM: Sure.

MG: —just to see a typical vault? [Footsteps] Would you like to go into vault 7?

GM: I love vault 7. That’s one of my favourites. [Laughs] Archivists with specific specialities have special affinities with certain vaults. We have the photography and the audio visual archivists who really like the minus 18—the extra cold vault—because that’s where all the colour film is kept. As an art archivist, I like vault 7 because that’s where we store a lot of our larger posters flat. We have special storage in there. So let’s go see some of my babies.

[Sound of a door opening]

MG: Actually, I’ll be telling you about the non-collection side of things. So maybe you’ll learn a few things that you didn’t know about the storage vault. So this is one of the 48 vaults in the facility. All vaults are essentially the same size, so about 37 metres deep by 9.6 metres wide; so 350 square metres of space without columns. That’s very important to us because it allows for the mobile shelving in all of the vaults. The vaults on the ground floor have a higher capacity than those on the second and third. Below us in the crawl space are columns midway between the two walls, so it allows for a greater capacity on this level. And that’s why all of the heaviest collections are located on this floor. So the film, the video collections, all of the drawings that are in map cabinets—all of that is very heavy and so that’s why it’s on this level.

GM: I was going to ask you, when we walk in the first impression is that the concrete is very shiny, it almost looks wet.

MG: It does, yes. And actually that was done—concrete gives off a bit of dust initially, most particularly, but through its lifetime. And so to prevent that little concrete dust from damaging the documents held in the vaults, there’s a sealant that was applied to the floors, the walls and the ceilings of the vault structure. And that’s what darkened the concrete. So what you’re seeing is the raw concrete but with the sealant added, it looks a bit wet and darker. And again, that was done to protect the integrity of the holdings held inside.

GM: What about air movements and air changes?

MG: So you can see the main duct, which brings in the air and then the air is pushed through that little funnel and then circulates throughout all of the vault and then exits through the exhaust that’s right on top of the front door of the vault. So air kind of continuously moves through this vault at a fairly slow rate. There’s about three air changes per hour.

And that’s more in keeping with the kind of older storage spaces in Europe. Some vaults have a great number of air changes. Here, they use a more European model looking at collections that were in very good shape that were held in ancient manors or even in caves where there’s very little air changes, but the temperature and humidity are very stable. So here there’s also very few air changes per hour. We probably could not do that if this was a working space.

GM: Mmhmm.

MG: As soon as you bring in people and computers—

GM: You get spikes.

MG: —you need to have more air changes. Also, you need more air changes but in a vault that’s meant for storage we can kind of reduce the number of air changes and really ensure that we have a constant temperature and humidity.

GM: As you can imagine, storing and providing safe access to millions of items is no simple task. The vaults come equipped with easy gliding shelving systems that represent the equivalent of over 150 kilometres of shelving lined up end to end. These items don’t just sit on the shelves either. Five circulation clerks each travel about 10 kilometres everyday to gather the collection items requested by the public and by employees.

So tell us more about the shelving. It was top-of-the-line 20 years ago, but it’s still pretty awesome today. And for someone who’s of small stature and not very large musculature, it’s really handy to have these things because they move like—well, actually I was going to say they move like they’re on rails, but they are on rails.

MG: They are in fact on rails. And actually the shelving has served us very well. As you say, it’s 20 years old and we’ve had very little issues with the mobile shelving. During the planning of the facility, various options were looked at for mobile shelving. At the time compact shelving similar to this one was what was kind of the newest form of shelving. We opted for a manual shelving system versus electrical shelving system, which several archives had used. And it was for several reasons:

One, we wanted to avoid the chance that there would be a malfunction with the electrical system, that it might have a spark, start a fire in a vault. So we wanted to eliminate as much as we could any equipment in the vault.

Also for security reasons, as soon as you have equipment in a vault, you need people to maintain that equipment so you’re constantly having people from the outside coming into vaults. By limiting the equipment into the vault to the bare minimum—which is what we have here, we have lights, we have sprinklers, that’s about it—we’re limiting the number of times that somebody has to come in here to service the equipment.

And then the third factor in the decision was economic. The electrical system would have been much more expensive and so we went with a manual system. Having said that, we’ve since learned that many institutions that add electrical systems over the years have gone back to manual because they had issues with their electrical system. So we’re very pleased with that decision. And as you said, you can move the shelving very easily [sound of shelves being moved]. The specifications for the shelving specified how much you can move with kind of very little pounds of pressure on the handle.

GM: You’re doing it with one arm and one hand.

MG: Yes, yeah. You can move up to six of the textual ranges and I believe it’s four of these larger ones with very little pressure. So yeah, it moves very, very easily.

GM: One sort of gets illusions of one’s own strength when you’re moving these things.

MG: You do, yes.

GM: I’ve been caught trying to move eight at a time.  Maybe not. But four quite easily, like butter.

Each shelving unit is about 7.5 metres long, 2.4 metres high and about a meter in width.

MG: The other thing to note too about the shelving is that they’re bright colours and again that’s because we’re in a space that’s all concrete. And again to brighten it up a bit, so the shelving’s white and the end panels are yellow, so a bit of a splash of colour. The paint on this is dry powder-coat paint. As I mentioned, there was a long list of prohibited materials in the building and so where that was applied the most strictly was in the vaults. So no wood, no organic material, no materials that give off volatile or organic compounds, and no solvents. So this paint was a powder that they put on the metal and then they bake it on. So it doesn’t have any solvents. Archivally, it’s a very clean surface.

GM: The fact that this is a big empty space free of columns gives us a lot of liberty to customize the vaults. We were speaking about the fact that this room mainly stores art and a lot of our art collections are stored flat, so they’re not in your basic document boxes. They’re what we lovingly like to refer to as pizza boxes, which was very disappointing the first time you open one. There’s no pizza in there. But we also have these large plan file cabinets where were store oversized material, like posters and maps, but not every vault is set up like this. So this vault is set up specifically for the material it holds. And if you look at the audiovisual ones, we have special types of racking for the film canisters. So it really gives us this great flexibility, versatility, even though this is the permanent space as you were speaking about earlier. The 5th floor is a lot more malleable, but we still have a lot of flexibility in here as well.

MG: We do. And in fact, that’s a good point. Except for the art racks, which are a different storage system—and that vault is higher than the remaining vaults—all of the other vaults have the rails exactly in the same spot in every vault so that we could dismantle the mobile carriages in this vault, move them to another vault if we so desired. So the vault structure not having columns and having a regular set of rails allows for a great deal of flexibility.

And the lighting also runs in a way that it allows for flexibility in the vaults. Typically when you have shelving, there will be lighting in all of the aisles. That’s difficult to do when you have mobile aisles. But by running the lighting on the other side, it allows for maximum flexibility in the vaults.

The lighting too is one where—when we first came in, I don’t know if you noticed that the lights were off? There’s a timer in the centre aisle. If there’s no movement in the centre aisle for 15 or 20 minutes, the lights go off.

GM: [Laughs]

MG: You may have experienced that as a user of the vaults.

GM: When you become engrossed in something and you’re in the vaults and all of a sudden if you don’t move, the lights go off. You have this slight moment of panic where you start moving your arms around and flailing like a fool just to try to get the sensors to find you again.

MG: Yes.

GM: But it is kind of freaky.

MG: Yeah, but again that was done so that the vaults are kept in—the documents are kept in darkness most of the time, which is the proper preservation environment.

GM: We’re extremely fortunate to have such a great storage facility. I have worked in other archival centres where you had to turn a dial when you walk into the room so the lights turn off and then if they do go off, you have to sort of feel your way back to the door to turn the light back on. As an archival professional, I’m very fortunate. I know how fortunate I am to work in this place. Because it really is the best of the best. It’s impressive.

MG: Yeah. I’m partial but I think it is, yeah.

GM: [Laughs] We’re all in agreement here.

Now it’s time for a Library and Archives Canada fun fact. The Preservation Centre gets a lot of visitors. Folks from archival institutions, libraries, and museums visit often, especially when they are planning or building a new facility of their own. They come here to see what has worked for us, and to borrow ideas from our facility, which has been operating extremely well for the past 20 years. We also get many other guests taking tours of the centre. In the past 20 years we’ve hosted George W Bush, Stephen Harper, the King and Queen of Sweden, and Ambassadors from Germany, Australia and Ireland, just to name a few. Notable entertainers such as Bryan Adams and Rachel McAdams have also gone on tours here. This building is popular!

Mario and I will now head up to the 5th floor. This is where we have laboratories for conservation treatments and spaces for preservation activities such as the copying of records and digitization. It sits on the top floor of the building, directly over the three-story vault structure.

When we got off the elevator on the 5th floor, Mario started by talking about a new Library and Archives Canada project currently in development, and told us more about the architect’s vision when designing the Preservation Centre.

MG: One thing to note at the back, though, here maybe is that when the government bought the land on which this building sits, it bought many acres, recognizing that Library and Archives is a department that continues to acquire archival documents and continues to receive books through legal deposit. And so the land around us allows for construction of other facilities in the future, including one which is under development right now, which we’re calling Gatineau 2 for lack of a better name right now.

But also at the back of the site you can see these electrical pylons, which, you can imagine, when the architect first came onto the site, what was here was just a field with tall grasses with these pylons running at the back. And if you look at the pylons and compare them to the columns of the building, you’ll see that there is a similitude between the two. I believe the architect has mentioned that he saw in the electrical pylons kind of a symbol of the transmission of information—and Library and Archives having a similar mandate, we transmit, we store and we make available all of this information—and thus was one of the influences on the columns for the building.

GM: And isn’t that a sign of good architecture when you can mirror the environment around the building?

MG: Absolutely, yes. Yeah. I think another sign too is when you can incorporate age-old ideas and if you look at the centre, it’s very modern looking, it’s a high-tech building. But there’s a nod to the tradition of archives building. We’re told that among the first archives were Greek temples and they would keep important state papers in the inner room of Greek temples. If you look at the layout of the Preservation Centre and compare it to a Greek temple, you’ll find here that there’s also a cella—a very robust enclosed room—in the Greek temple. It houses the statue of the deity, and in our case it houses the national treasures. And that cella is surrounded by a peristyle of columns, very much echoing what a Greek temple looks like. And I think it’s probably no coincidence that the Preservation Centre has eight columns at the front, eight being also the number of columns of the Parthenon, which is seen as the ideal temple.

GM: I learn something new every time I come to this centre. It’s amazing.

…and here’s something else I didn’t know. The Preservation Centre houses not only books, photographs, maps and works of art, but also a vast digital collection totalling five petabytes, or five million billion bytes! This content is preserved on 5,000 linear tape-open cartridges in secure vaults.

Now, back to the 5th floor…

MG: So the 5th floor here, as you can see, is much lighter construction than the vault structure. So it’s all steel-frame construction. And the 4th floor of the building is a mechanical floor just for mechanical distribution. So typically a lot of the systems that are on the 4th floor would be in the vault structure, but here, having a floor dedicated to all of that mechanical equipment separates it from the vault. It also allows for more flexibility on this floor, so if we have to move a sink for instance, we have a whole floor underneath to work in. So it facilitates that.

The floor here is designed a bit like a village. You can see this north-south main street. Again, in the idea of a temple, the Roman city planning always had the north-south street as the main street of the town. In this case, it was named after Dr. Wallot, who was the National Archivist when the building was constructed. And then there are secondary streets and little alleyways.

GM: Dr. Jean Pierre Wallot was a Canadian historian, and like Mario mentioned, the National Archivist of Canada from 1985 to 1997.

MG: There are also buildings with their own rooves, and other buildings that are open to the main roof of the building.  And there, the determining factor was if a building needed to have special lighting—or if a function needed to have special lighting—it was enclosed. If it used noisy equipment, it was enclosed. So whatever could be open to the main roof was left open. And you very much do end up with the appearance of a village.

GM: Can you tell us a little bit more about the flexibility of the spaces here? You were saying how up here it’s not as permanent as in the vaults.

MG: Yes, it’s all light-weight steel construction and with metal panels for walls that are actually screwed onto the metal frame. And so when we had, for instance, to disassemble one a few years ago, rather than kind of demolition work that creates a lot of dust, here you’re unscrewing metal panels, removing them. So it’s a very clean demolition, if I can use the term. It also allows for a great deal of flexibility. You can then reorganize the insides. The labs are also left pretty open with a regular occurrence of outlets and of IT outlets so that there’re maximum flexibility in the labs themselves.

GM: And correct me if I’m wrong but did the architect not choose sort of run-of-the-mill or readily available construction material to build this facility so we could actually be one of the very few government buildings that was built on time and under budget?

MG: He did, yes. A lot of the material that you see are industrial materials, so the corrugated metal. A lot of the roofs on the building structure themselves are very reminiscent of large farmsteads that you would see out West. I think it’s probably not a coincidence that Mr. Keenberg is from Manitoba. His office was initially in Winnipeg. So we can see some of that influence in the building materials.

Some of the buildings are greenhouses, and again those weren’t designed by the office. They’re off-the-shelf greenhouses. They were slightly modified and customized at the bottoms, but that avoids kind of the substantial cost of design and of constructing special-order greenhouses. So it’s just run-of-the-mill from a catalogue.

GM: And it’s perfect for keeping in fumes when the conservators are working with chemicals. It’s good for keeping dust out, noise out. It’s really an ingenious way of seeing things and way of planning things.

MG: It is, yeah. It’s very much—and in the spirit of a village too, it really brightens up—

GM: Yeah.

MG: —kind of the village. There’s many different forms, a lot of different roof shapes. And those greenhouses definitely standout and again bring a bit of whimsy onto this floor.

GM:  We asked Mario about the location of the labs, in terms of the type of lighting they require…

MG: Actually, the lighting is a very important aspect. When this floor was designed, the main criteria to…determining where a lab would be was its requirement for natural light. So for instance, photo studios that require absence of natural light are in the centre of the floor. Labs that needed very specific quality of natural light, specifically labs where they do colour matching—so the oil paintings lab, the prints and drawings lab, the manuscripts lab—are located on the north side of the building and in some cases the east side of the building. That’s also where you have the most constant daylight during the day. And in labs that needed natural light, but no prescribed amount, are on the east and south side of the building. So it was very much an exercise of placing labs according to their requirements for natural light.

GM: And again, we’re relying on age-old wisdom that painters have always preferred northern light for their painting, exactly for that. Because the light is the most constant, is the softest and least harsh.

MG: Absolutely. And you can see here in this lab that there’s an abundance of natural light, but it’s all northern light, so it respects preservation criteria but it provides for a very enjoyable work environment.

GM: The lab that Mario mentions is the paintings conservation lab, where we happen to run into one of our conservators, Mary Hough.

So we were lucky enough to bump into Mary Hough. She’s our paintings conservator and we just spotted her zipping around the lab, so we caught her for just a quick minute. We were just talking with Mario about how the northern light here is the best light for doing colour matching—

Mary Hough (MH): It is, yeah.

GM: —in painting. Can you tell us a little bit about the lab and what it’s like to work in it?

MH: Well, it’s enclosed in a glass house to contain all of our solvents and toxic pigments and such. But mostly we do our solvent work in the spray booth because the evacuation is so good. We have these…called elephant trunks to draw out solvent, but they’re not quite as strong as we would need for the toxic solvents we use.

GM: Did Mary Hough just say “elephant trunks”? She sure did. Elephant trunks, in conservation terms, are ventilation fume extractors that catch and remove lighter-than-air volatile solvents. They are quiet, easy to use, and well, look like elephant trunks! If you want to see what they look like, get yourself over to our Flickr gallery to see a photo of one!

The work you do here, you’re preparing paintings for when we’re sending—because we’re one of Canada’s largest lending institutions—so a lot of your work is preparing paintings, making sure they’re good to go, that they’re sound and they’re stable. But you’re also doing a lot of corrective work. You’re doing conservation work, you’re fixing. I remember that one of my favourite ones that you worked on where we had to look at it with ultraviolet light and you were... You’re doing all kinds of things in here.

MH: Well, sometimes in the past they’ve been damaged, either through handling or over-cleaning or any number of things. And so we’ll touch in what’s missing. The paint may have fallen off in a few discrete areas, so we’ll tone in what’s missing and match the adjacent colours. So, that’s more than just stabilizing it.

GM: Yeah.

MH: It’s improving its aesthetic.

GM: Next, we head over to the conservation labs for photography, and for prints and drawings.

GM: So we’re heading into the prints and drawings lab, which is also the lab for the photography conservation. Here we have what Mario was talking about earlier—we have some photo rooms that need complete darkness, so they’re more on the inside than specifically facing the windows. And we’re going to be extra quiet here because we don’t want to make the conservators jump as they’re doing meticulous work. So what can you tell us about the labs, Mario? They’re nice and open, aren’t they?

MG: They are, yeah. And that’s a big contrast to the labs as they were in our existing facilities. The art lab, the prints and drawings lab were in the third basement of one of our main facilities with no natural light and cramped quarters. You can see here that there’s a tremendous amount of natural light and that it seems very airy. Having said that, that has to do a lot with the planning. So staff here have an individual lab station and it moves to communal work areas and individual very specific little enclosed rooms for specific functions.

GM: Folks might hear us squeak a little bit as we’re walking around because the floor surface has changed again. Now that we’re in the labs, we’re walking on rubberized surfaces. Mario, can you explain a little bit why it’s changing, and we apologize in advance for the squeaking.

MG: Yeah, again because we wanted a very clean finish, no pests, and easy to maintain if there was any spill from a chemical product. So whereas the main circulation areas of the floor are carpet, here it’s the rubber tile. So again, non-organic and very clean and easy to maintain.

GM: And it’s also that rubber—correct me if I’m wrong—but it’s also that rubber doesn’t conduct electricity so it makes it safer for the actual documents. If you’re working with very fragile paper that might stick to a table and rip in half if you’re trying to pull it off, or even pastels where the powder might kind of stick off because of a little bit of electricity—here, the floor kind of eliminates that risk.

MG: That’s right, it avoids any static electricity. Yeah.

GM: And it’s comfortable for people who work on their feet all day.

MG: It is, yeah. Yeah. And you can definitely see a difference between this and the concrete floor that we were on.

GM: Absolutely. My back is a lot better now. [Laughs]

[Sound of footsteps]

Here’s another fun fact about the Preservation Centre.

In 2007, rare book librarian Elaine Hoag discovered an Australian playbill advertising the productions at the Sydney Theatre in 1796. The playbill was found in a scrapbook, compiled by eccentric 19th-century British banker Dawson Turner. It is the earliest known document printed in Australia. That same year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on a trip to the document’s homeland, presented it to Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Mario and I next made our way over to the rare books lab, where we ran into two of our book conservators, Manise Marston and Natasa Krsmanovic. Manise told us what it’s like to work at the Preservation Centre…

Manise Marston (MM): Well, I know that ever day I come here, I’m very grateful, very humbled. A state-of-the-art facility, and for conservation we have every material we could need, every type of equipment. We’re very fortunate to be here every day. We have natural lighting, we have fume hoods, we have elephant trunks, lots of table space. We have light tables. So yeah, we’re just very fortunate.

GM: You guys have kind of the sort of the—I don’t want to say it too loud—but you do have sort of the cooler stuff here. You’ve got the lovely book-binding room with all the leather, the finishings, the tooling, the gold tooling room. You just want to sit in there and touch everything because it’s where you finish off the books. And you guys do have really interesting work, where it’s your job to make it beautiful again, not just fix it, stabilize it. But you’re also sort of adding your own personal touch, your own personal expertise to this stuff.

MM: That’s right.

GM: And again, you do have the liberty because you have all of this equipment and material at your disposal.

MM: Right. Our jobs are—

GM: I’m talking more than you are.

MM: No, it’s ok. I wasn’t expecting to talk at all, so. Our jobs are very hands-on. So it’s very specialized. And yeah, we don’t do as much finishing as we’d like to do, but a lot of times at the end of a treatment, we will make a label. So, yes.

GM: Can you tell us quickly—because you’ve got a lot of old stuff here: old machines, old printing presses—

MM: Right.

GM: —and all kinds of stuff. Do you actually use this material?

MM: We do. This is one of the larger ones. This is our standing press. This I would use if I was making large boards for like a photo album that was being—maybe the boards were lost or the boards were so damaged we couldn’t reuse them. So something like this, we would use for that. And it’s huge. It’s a big one.

And then we also have—at our benches we have the smaller ones. Most of the items we work on are monographs. They’re smaller. So we have lots of presses at our desks that we use. And then we have something like this, which is a standing backrest. So we’re very lucky. This is actually a large one that I’m working on. So this allows us full access to the spine while at the same time supporting the book itself. And this is old. I would say like end of the 1800s.

GM: Wow. So Manise is showing us this really great piece of equipment where she’s got a book sandwiched between two sort of metal plates where she’s exposed the spine and it’s got some Japanese paper resting on the top and you’re sort of midway through beautifying it again.

MM: Yes, yes.

GM: But it’s really cool—again, Mario’s been talking about bringing back old notions and old sort of wisdom—

MM: Right.

GM: —but in this super modern building.

MM: Right.

GM: And how this is one way where we can’t make this any better. This works perfectly fine.

MM: Right. Actually, one of the reasons I love book binding and book conservation is because the traditions haven’t changed. And even all of the old sewing, the historical sewing that we do, it hasn’t changed. It’s the same. It’s hands-on. And one of the things we do is we stabilize the old, so we’re taking new materials and we’re blending the two together to make it usable. And this item—it’s really large. The boards are detached. So, right now it’s a huge challenge. It’s been here for months and we’re going to finish it this month…teamwork. Teamwork. So it’s a big challenge, but like I said, it’s really hands-on and we love what we do.

GM: Yeah, it really shows.

MM: Does it?

GM: Yes.

MM: Good.

GM: Books are awesome.

MM: They are awesome.

GM: Thank you, ladies. We won’t keep you any longer. Thanks. We’re just going to keep meandering through.

MM: Nice to see you.

GM: Thanks.


GM: Now, our last stop on the tour, the art vault!

So Mario’s about to let us into the art vault, which is a special vault and Mario will tell us about it once we’re inside. [Sound of an automatic door opening] But there are special dispensations to get in there. There’s an extra little layer of security because we do have some really nice treasures in there. [Beeping] You’re hearing Mario key in his code. [Footsteps and the opening and closing of doors] Here we are in the art vault, also lovingly known as vault 34, which is where we keep most of our paintings because they require special environmental conditions. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

MG: Yeah, this is the one vault at 18 degrees Celsius, 50 per cent humidity—so 50 per cent rather than 40 per cent, which is typical for our paper vaults. A bit more humid to better preserve the oil paintings and also the Earth globes, which are wood at the back of the vault, so it prevents drying out. The other noticeable difference between this vault and other vaults are the height of the vault. We have a collection of many portraits that are life-size or even larger. And in the previous storage facility, these were often hung on their sides. And the custodian of the collection made a very valiant effort and pleaded to properly hang them and so the space was bumped up into that 4th-floor mechanical room at the front of the vault. So it allows for all of our tallest paintings to be hung in the proper orientation of the painting.

The other big difference is that the vault is a light grey colour. It’s not the same sealant that we see in the other vault—or I should say it’s the same sealant but colour was added to this one. In the other vaults, the architect wanted the concrete to read as concrete. In this vault, we wanted to provide a neutral background for any researchers that would be here to look at collections, because a lot of these items are too large or too fragile to transport to our public facility. Under special circumstances, some members of the public are allowed here accompanied by the custodian of the collection. And so to provide a neutral background, the vault was painted a light grey. It’s, again, a paint with no volatile organic compounds to preserve the collections.

GM: Can you tell us about the special racking? We don’t see this anywhere else in the Preservation Centre. This is, again, mobile racking. So we have the rails on the ground, and they hold a lot of stuff.

MG: Yeah, they do. And they move pretty easily, considering their weight. They roll on the bottom rail and they’re guided on a top rail. And I think in the planning of the facility, the back half of the vault—which is a bit lower—was meant for smaller items, and so there the art racks are actually closer together than at the front of the vault, which is a lot of the larger pieces. When you take into consideration the width of the frames themselves, and sometimes the special handling frames, you need more spaces for those large paintings.

GM: That ends our walking tour of the Preservation Centre. If you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, you’re welcome to register for one of our guided tours. Please go to the LAC’s Events section of our website to register. To learn more about the Preservation Centre, visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. You can also head over to thediscoverblog.com to read articles about the facility.

To view images associated with this podcast, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast. And if you liked this episode, you are invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through iTunes, Google Play or the RSS feed located on our website.

Thank you for joining us. I'm Genevieve Morin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Mario Gasperetti. Also, thanks to Mary Piper-Hough, Manise Marston, Andrew van Vliet and Michael Smith for their contributions to this episode.

This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox with assistance from Paula Kielstra.

For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

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