This is the first in an occasional series taking a look behind the scenes of university support services.
A drop in the bucket: For most campus mail, that is how the journey begins. A professor, administrator or staff member wants something to go from point A to point B and will toss the piece of mail into the "out" bin.
But what happens then? What he might not know is that the direction his mail is about to take may be more akin to going from point A to point E. If there is one service that links together all nine divisions of the university, it's the campus mail system, a sometimes invisible but vital link to the orderly workings of the university. At the heart of this communication-circulatory system is the mail room located in the basement of Merryman Hall on the Homewood campus.
Whether a letter from the School of Nursing in East Baltimore is going to the Peabody Institute a couple of miles away or to the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, it first has to pass through the fingers of those who work at the Merryman Hall mail room. (If it were going to the School of Public Health across the street, it could be delivered through the East Baltimore campus's own circulation network.)
The Merryman Hall mail room--where the majority of campus mail is received, as well as all U.S. mail addressed to The Johns Hopkins University and the Homewood divisions-looks from the outside like an ordinary loading dock, with its wide plastic wind strips that hang in the entrance, protecting the inside from the elements. Four white trucks are usually lined up in a row outside, basically nondescript save for the Johns Hopkins University shield on either side of the main cabin. And for most of the day, this area behind Merryman Hall appears to be nothing more than a forgotten parking lot--that is, until the vans start rolling in.
In a typical morning delivery, up to 10,000 letters and 2,000 packages arrive here to be processed. Out of the backs of U.S. Postal Service vans come huge hampers, sometimes filled to the top with magazines, letters and junk mail. And now that the fall semester is under way, this flow of mail will increase even more, according to Roy McKinney, senior clerk at Homewood.
"It's like a small town. And it seems to in-crease significantly every year," says McKinney of the volume of mail received at Homewood.
Here's how the system works.
7 a.m. Five mail carrier/drivers arrive at Merryman Hall, where they will be joined later in the day by two student assistants. The job awaiting them is the sorting of the just-arrived U.S. mail and the campus mail that had been picked up the previous afternoon. The mail addressed to the university at 3400 N. Charles St. arrives in large hampers and trays, typically 10 trays of "letter mail"; three hampers of "flat mail," such as large envelopes; and one hamper of parcels. (Letters sent to specific street addresses, such as 4545 N. Charles St. for Evergreen House, do not go through Merryman but are delivered directly to the address by the U.S. Postal Service.)
The hampers are then placed between two rows of mailboxes bearing the name of each school in the Hopkins University system and each individual department at the Homewood campus. The mail room employees dig into these deep piles of mail and look for key words that will help them separate the mail. "Biology Department" will take a letter directly to that box; "President's Office" sends a piece of mail to the Garland Hall mailbox.
9 to 10 a.m. The carriers start loading up their sacks for the day's first delivery. Just after 9 a.m., one carrier from Homewood leaves to deliver the campus mail that has been sorted thus far, first to the three divisions in East Baltimore and then to the Peabody Institute. Rob Bellman, a carrier who one day recently had the East Baltimore route, says this part of the job isn't as much tough as it is time-consuming: Certain Hopkins buildings, such as the School of Nursing, do not have a loading dock area to park in, and he is forced to park on the street, which, coupled with fighting through downtown Baltimore traffic, eats up even more time.
At around 10 a.m., more hundreds of letters having been sorted, other carriers take the U.S. and campus mail out of the Homewood department mailboxes and begin to deliver it. (Approximately 25 to 35 percent of all the mail handled at Homewood is campus mail.) At this hour, although all the mailboxes are emptied, the hampers still contain both some campus and U.S. mail.
"It's not always possible to sort all the morning's mail and get it right out," said McKinney. "That's our goal. But especially on Mondays we are dealing with a very large volume of mail."
For the other divisions and campuses of the university--the School of Advanced International Studies, the downtown Baltimore campus, Montgomery County Center and the Applied Physics Lab--the campus mail is picked up at Merryman Hall by private couriers, twice a week for APL and SAIS and daily for centers downtown and in Montgomery County. Each location of the university also has its own mail room, and clerks there who are responsible for delivering the mail to the individual departments.
10 a.m. to noon. It's during this time carriers are working their routes, delivering mail to all the departments and picking up the new batch of campus mail that is sitting in the "out" bins.
For carriers like Barry Barnett, this is his favorite part of the day. Barnett said he enjoys walking and getting around the campus.
"It's good for me in that it keeps me in shape," says Barnett, now in his 10th year at Hopkins. "Sometimes the bins can get to around 100 pounds. Lugging those around will sure keep you fit."
And the time of the year that Barnett stays "fittest," he adds, is the Christmas season, when there is even more mail to sort and carry, and it has to get out before students and staff leave for the holidays.
Noon to 1 p.m. After the carriers return from their morning runs and eat lunch, the next task is to sort the campus mail they just picked up and the remaining U.S. mail that had been delivered in the morning. Also sitting in Merryman Hall by this time is the second delivery of U.S. mail, which is normally half that of the morning's load.
1:30 p.m. The second delivery of mail goes out. This time, however, it's going to only Homewood buildings. Currently, there are four mail vans in the fleet, but there are plans to add a fifth van and an additional carrier, which will make it possible to take two trips from Homewood to East Baltimore and Peabody each day.
On some days, however, only one trip is made to Homewood departments, according to Andrew Macsherry, senior postmaster at Homewood, who oversees the university's campus mail system. "Sometimes critical staffing situations arise that we can only guarantee one delivery and collection, that being in the afternoon," Macsherry says, "but we try to ensure that happens very infrequently."
For McKinney and his crew, a large part of the day is dedicated to sorting the mail. At times this involves deciphering where a package or letter should go because it is addressed to a school, such as Arts and Sciences, rather than to a specific department, such as Biology, or to just simply The Johns Hopkins University.
"Sometimes we have to open a package to figure out where to send it," McKinney says.
McKinney, who is approaching his 30th anniversary with Hopkins, remembers one such package with no direct address that kept coming back to the mail room from wherever it was sent.
"Eventually we have to send some of the packages back to the sender," McKinney says. "But most of the letters and packages find a home eventually."
McKinney says Mail Services is considering purchasing high-speed sorting equipment that can read standardized addresses, such as that used by post office branches. But until then, the carriers and student assistants will sort through the pieces of mail one by one.