New uses for old bunkers #12 – Amherst – the books piled up in the former war room

“[A] bunker reflects the society that made it [and] …bunkers have always had as part of their purpose, the protection and transmission of culture. They operate as a cultural ark – and what is preserved/valued  for preservation speaks of what is privileged in the host society. The afterlife of the bunker now lies in the provision of secure archival storage. These places that once offered shelter for people or national treasures now live on (if at all) as data stores. Eisenhower’s underground command centre, near Euston station [in London], now serves as Channel 4 TV’s media archive. The bunker remains as a survival machine, one that can preserve organisational culture, but not one that now requires (many) humans to enable that process. [And our] bunker metaphor[s] may have to evolve too – if the bunker no longer has any humans in it.” (Bennett 2011:168)

Please excuse the self-quotation here – but it’s a good launchpad for looking at an interesting issue underlying Amherst College’s co-option of the former military bunker that it has been using for book storage since 1994. The bunker was created by hollowing out part of the Holyoke Range, to create a backup battle centre for the U.S. Strategic Air Command. If its central base in Omaha had been destroyed, control of nuclear warfare would have switched to Amherst.

The following audio-visual tour (from 2004) gives a great account of the conversion of, and current use of, this bunker and features many evocative photographs by Samuel Masinter:

There’s nothing particularly novel about a military bunker converted to storage of cultural artefacts, but has got my attention is the way in which the documents are stored in a portion of this facility that is leased to five other colleges. The approach is described thus:

“The Five College space is in a separate section of the bunker from the Amherst depository and features an unusual system for maximizing book storage. The books—mostly serials and government documents that are least often requested from the libraries—are not stored by call number or the Dewey Decimal System (which was invented by Melvil Dewey, Class of 1874).  They are not sorted by subject. Rather, the books are sorted by size, with  each shelf holding only books of the same height. And the books are not shelved spine out, but in long cardboard trays, packed in whatever direction most efficiently fills the space. The trays, in turn, are shelved end out, and each is given a distinctive code that’s entered into the depository computer. Because it is impossible for anyone to find a given book without knowledge of the computer codes, users are not allowed into the depository but must instead request the books through their library. To further save space, the bookcases are  motorized and ride on tracks to minimize aisles. According to David Spoolstra, the librarian for the Five College depository, the unusual storage system allows the depository to hold twice as many books as conventional library systems. He also notes that the bunker has the added benefit of having floors that can hold 500 pounds per square foot. It has the additional benefit of offering bomb-proof protection for the books, as well as constant temperature and humidity.” (Amherst College 2003)

What strikes me is that the absence of a physical system of arrangement to separately categorise and organise the stock of the books (other than via size) places total reliance on the electronic catalogue to give that collection meaning (i.e. any purposeful interrogation and retrieval faculty). If the electronic catalogue were to become lost, then this stock of knowledge would lapse to amorphous shelved heaps of data.

This challenge to durability (the ability of a stock of knowledge to carry itself – and its interpretive integrity – forward through time) is not unique to the Amherst bunker, but it is perhaps taken to its logical conclusion here, as the documents sheltered here could survive all perils that the passage of time (human or geological) can through at them – but survive only as amorphous data, because the scheme of arrangement is virtual, and entirely dependent on the continued maintenance of the electrical and IT infrastructure of ‘now’ into the future. In this regard, Brown & Duguid (2002:200) note the weak ‘time binding’ characteristrics of modern information systems, and the attendant irony that “the most threatened records in modern archives are usually not the oldest, but the newest.” (201)

To be fair, the Amherst depository is not intended to be a ‘future beating’ temporo-cultural transmission vehicle. Its a place to store (and access) books and other items in the ‘here and now’. A practical use of a vast underground void-space left behind when the military moved out. But, wrapped within the context and design of a facility engineered for survival it does at least resonate these ark connotations and (for me at least) conjures up the opulent (but anxious) dreams of all who have ever thought of a library as a repository (rather than depository) of a culture. As Battles (2003: 214) puts it:

“Here in the stacks, the library may seem a place where books go when they die. In their totality, they disappear amid their own mystifications. From age to age, libraries grow and change, flourish and disappear, blossom and contract – and yet through them all we’re chasing after Alexandria…haunted by the myths of knowledge and of wholeness that books spawn when massed in their millions.”


Postscript: I’ve been informed that there have been changes at the depository over the last 10 years and that the Five College collection has now been integrated with the Amherst one. I’m also told that the electronic catalogue is backed up (electronically) at three secure locations, other data bunkers…

With thanks to Martha Bridegam for pointing me in the direction of this bunker.

All photos by Samuel Masinter and taken from

Amherst College (2003) ‘From bombs to books’ in Amherst Magazine, Winter 2003:

Battle, M. (2003) Library – an unquiet history, William Heinemann: London.

Bennett, L. (2011) ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality and management’, Culture and Organization, 17 (2): 155-173

Brown, J.S. & Duguid, P. (2002) The Social Life of Information, Harvard Business School Press: Harvard


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

2 Responses to New uses for old bunkers #12 – Amherst – the books piled up in the former war room

  1. dianajhale says:

    As a former professional archive/librarian person this is a treat! The issues about recent archives and records are a concern, especially digital ones of course. I do love a view of some stacks and I have been meaning to get hold of that ‘Library – an unquiet history’ book. That quote is great.

  2. Great – glad you liked it Diana. I found the ‘Library – an unquiet history’ book interesting in parts, but felt the quote I used was its highpoint. You’d probably get more out of it though, given your background.

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