Sunken Treasures

The University of Minnesota calls its new underground library a triumph of design and function. Never mind the mold that feasts on pollution, a multimillion-dollar legal dispute, and those pesky health complaints.

Midway through a tour of the new Elmer L. Andersen Library, Donald Kelsey pauses for a moment in the airy atrium that serves as the centerpiece of the $46.5 million building. He rubs his hand along a length of smooth, white oak railing. "It's one of the things I treat myself to every day," Kelsey explains, savoring the texture of the bare wood. As the facilities-planning officer for the University of Minnesota's Library Department, Kelsey was a major player in the building of Andersen Library, and he remains one of its most appreciative boosters. When budget cutters were looking to save money a few years back, he fought to keep the wood accents. "It just wouldn't have been the same without the oak," he proclaims.

Sitting atop a bluff on the west side of the Mississippi River just north of the Washington Avenue Bridge, the library is four stories high, with a curved red-brick façade and plenty of windows. The latter provide a splendid view of the U's most visually arresting edifice--the metallic, geometrically challenged Weisman Art Museum. By comparison, Andersen Library appears unremarkable. But then again, it is largely invisible: the vast majority of the complex is buried deep underground.

After slipping his key card into an access slot, Kelsey hurries into an elevator, descends some 80 feet, and strides into the heart of the library. Now home to more than 1.5 million volumes, the underground archives consist of two connected concrete warehouses that sit inside two enormous caverns, tunneled out of soft sandstone. "You could put two football fields end to end here and still have room left over," Kelsey boasts.

As he wends his way through the endless rows of shelves, Kelsey stops to point out various notable artifacts. The manuscripts and personal library of the poet John Berryman. The world's largest collection of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia. The Kautz family YMCA archives. Twelve thousand rare and antique books donated by the library's namesake, former governor and University regent Elmer Andersen. In all, eight major collections are stored in the warehouses, which also serve as the headquarters for a renowned interlibrary loaning system known as MINITEX.

For more than two decades, Kelsey says, University officials had hoped to build a central archive. Until the library was completed, the collections were scattered at sites across the campus, some of which were ill-suited to accommodate rare materials. In the worst cases, he says, the collections were menaced by everything from paper-eating cockroaches to water leaks. But those hazardous days, Kelsey exclaims, are over: "This building was very carefully designed in every respect, and we always erred on the side of caution. The temperature and humidity are steady as a rock."

Kelsey's upbeat tone echoes the public hosannas that various university officials have bestowed upon the library since it opened in February 2000. University president Mark Yudof calls the library "an extraordinary new space." Library director Tom Shaughnessy refers to it as "a state-of-the-art storage center." And, in a press release issued on the eve of its first open house, the school grandly dubbed the edifice its library system's "crown jewel."

But these rosy assessments don't square with those of various faculty and staff at the U, or many others associated with the library. In the view of the critics, problems with the project can be traced to one crucial misstep: the decision to build the archives in an area severely contaminated with industrial pollutants. To date, they point out, the legacy of that decision has already included millions of dollars in cost overruns, equipment malfunctions, and complaints about air quality. With the looming prospect of a decades-long cleanup, lawsuits are a virtual certainty. But worst of all, the critics contend, is the possibility that the U of M has put both the health of archive users and the safety of some of its most prized collections at risk--despite the fact that such hazards were "entirely foreseeable."

The red flags began popping up before the first shovelful of dirt was thrown in June of 1997. As far back as 1996, months before final funding for the project was authorized by then-Gov. Arne Carlson, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency predicted cost overruns, citing major contamination in the site's groundwater. But, according to members of a blue-ribbon commission Carlson appointed to study the project, neither the U of M nor the MPCA bothered to pass that information on to the state.

To this day, officials from the university and various agencies involved with the project complain that a widespread emphasis on institutional damage control makes it difficult to speak openly. Commenting seems especially risky given the probable litigation between the university and Minnegasco (the MPCA and university blame the utility company for pollution at the site). "In private, everybody knows this was a stupid idea. One bad decision after another," says one such critic. "But you can't say that, because it's so damn hot politically. And you know everything you say and do is going to be very closely scrutinized, because the legal wrangling on this site has gotten ugly. Hugely ugly. Awesomely ugly."

 

To understand the morass of legal, political, and scientific issues swirling around the Elmer L. Andersen Library, you must first consider the history of the neighborhood in which the edifice is located. The new building sits on a small parcel of land just north of the Washington Avenue Bridge. These days, the area is a dominated by university structures such as the Carlson School of Business, the law school, and the studio arts building. For most of the last century, though, the area was home to a wide variety of industries. Many of them left toxic reminders of their former presence.

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