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.

Hinding began comparing notes with other library staffers and found that a handful of other workers who had spent time in the archives were also complaining of periodic headaches and wooziness. And she was not calmed by reassurances from the university's Department of Environmental Health and Safety that concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and other toxins were "much less than OSHA or voluntary health limits." (Late last month the Minnesota Department of Health, which is now working with the university to develop an indoor-air-quality plan for the facility, said in a letter that it was "concerned about the use of industrial standards and guidelines for non-industrial workers.") "I just don't think it's safe," Hinding opines. "I'm not a scientist or an engineer. I'm a historian. But as a historian, I know about the Love Canal and the early testing of atomic bombs, and so I take a cautious approach."

Hinding also began to worry about the books and other artifacts stored in the library. Like most of her fellow curators, Hinding was told the caverns had been designed to guarantee a constant temperature and humidity--rule number one for paper conservation. But she noticed dramatic fluctuations in the conditions. "Shortly after we moved in, I thought the stacks were damp," Hinding recalls. "When I asked people about it, they would say, in a patronizing way, 'There, there, Andrea, you can't tell the difference between cold and damp.'" Unconvinced, she soon began taking humidity and temperature levels in the Audio-Video Room, where some of the library's most sensitive artifacts are stored.

Her unease was amplified when she got in touch with Calvin Alexander in the hopes of borrowing better temperature- and humidity-measuring equipment. Alexander, a professor in the Geology Department with an expertise in caves and environmental cleanup, had already developed a skeptical interest in the underground library. For months Alexander and his colleagues on the Institute of Technology Library Committee had been requesting temperature and humidity readings from the university's Facilities Management Department. According to Alexander and Institute of Technology library chairman Sanford Lipsky, that data was never provided.

Throughout February Alexander charted his own measurements, which varied radically from day to day. At its hottest, according to Alexander's data, the AV room was 95 degrees; at its coolest, 50 degrees. Relative humidity, meanwhile, ranged from 31 to 21 percent--a far cry from the paper-friendly conditions the library's boosters long promised. (In the past month, Alexander says, the temperature and humidity measurements in the archives seem to have balanced out, suggesting that either the building's operators have mastered the intricacies of its controls or that the changing season has made it easier to maintain stable conditions.)

Alexander's findings dismayed Hinding. His take on another issue--the possibility of a flood in the caverns--worried her even more. Alexander had been concerned about flood risk in the caverns since first getting wind of the project five years ago. According to the university's engineering reports, the elevated roadway at the entrances to the library's caverns is designed to ensure that the archives will remain dry even in the event of a 500-year flood. Anderson says the chief water-damage risk, however, comes from the possibility of a storm-sewer backup, not an overland flood. The cavern's drainage system is designed to handle such events, via state-of-the-art pumps, assorted redundant shutoff valves, and backup generators. But Alexander takes little solace in the assurances, noting that, over time, even seemingly perfect systems can malfunction. "If you study disasters, they always occur as a result of a sequence of seemingly improbable events. It's not one thing that goes wrong. It's three or four, all at the same time," he says. "The question is, Was this designed by an optimist or a realist?"

Alexander says he has some misgivings about going public with his concerns over the archives; especially since university president Mark Yudof and Gov. Jesse Ventura are locked in a public-relations war over funding. "It bothers me when I see people doing things that damage the university, and I'm not sure that's something I'm not doing right now," he says. "The underground library exists. It is going to be used. It is not possible for the university to abandon it at this point. The political consequences of that would be enormous--way more than I'm willing to expend.

"Some of my colleagues have come up to me and said, 'Why are you doing this? Is this a wise investment of your time? What good does that do the U?' I want people who manage this facility, and the lawyers, to know what they're up against. Then, maybe we won't have a flood. Maybe books won't be destroyed."

 

Officially, the U regards the Andersen Library as a success. Eric Kruse, vice president for university services, says the erratic humidity and temperature numbers that Hinding and Alexander gathered were an aberration--the result of malfunctions in the ventilation system. "We've had some difficulties in the past," he acknowledges. "But it's not a whole lot different than other new buildings that come online. You go through what's called a shakedown period, and getting all the systems to work together in the intended way takes some time."

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