Waterlogged

Leaks and corroded wires threaten the U of M's most treasured archives

Perched in front of his computer at Pillsbury Hall on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus, geologist Calvin Alexander nimbly clicks his mouse, scrolling through a series of tables and graphs.

Among other things, the data, which the U of M's Facilities and Maintenance Department has been collecting since March, shows hour-by-hour recordings of humidity and temperature inside the Elmer L. Andersen Library; the university's much ballyhooed $46.5 million underground archives on the West Bank. "Sometimes the best place to hide something is in plain sight," Alexander says with a chuckle. After a few more clicks, he finds what he is looking for: a mid-June spike, when the relative humidity in parts of the library's two 600-foot-long, 70-foot-wide caverns hit 70 percent. "That is awfully humid," he exclaims. "That's when paper starts to drip."

Since the library opened its doors to the public in April of 2000, its sophisticated climate-control systems--designed to protect more than 1.5 million books, manuscripts, and artifacts--have performed erratically. That hasn't surprised Alexander, who has been a longtime critic of the project. Caves are naturally moist places, he points out, and Andersen Library's caverns are surrounded by water. Just a few feet below the floor, for instance, there is a massive underground reservoir, known as the St. Peter Aquifer. In the event of heavy rain, Alexander always figured, the water would rise and--regardless of all the expensive technology--find its way into the building.

Water is seeping into the University of Minnesota's Elmer L. Andersen Library
Tony Nelson
Water is seeping into the University of Minnesota's Elmer L. Andersen Library

Sure enough, in late June a U of M maintenance worker popped open an access panel on the cavern floor and discovered that two ventilation ducts had filled with six to twenty inches of standing water. "It was no wonder they were having trouble with the humidity controls. This was like a giant humidifier," Alexander says. But it wasn't just the moisture that concerned Alexander: "Now you've got air blowing into the caves, basically stripping contaminants out of the water and dumping them into the archives."

Water in the air ducts is just the latest in a string of problems at the library, including cost overruns, employee health complaints, and extensive legal wrangling over who should clean up pollution that remains on the site (see "Sunken Treasures," City Pages, April 18).

The university has steadfastly assured workers at Andersen that the building is safe, and that the assorted environmental controls designed to keep contaminants out of the caverns are functioning. But critics such as Alexander remain skeptical and point to increasing evidence that the peculiar conditions in the caverns are taking a toll. According to two employees of the university, electricians recently discovered that a portion of the building's copper wiring is rapidly corroding. The culprit appears to be persistently high levels of hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of an unusual mold that feasts on water contaminants. "If there's something that's really starting to scare the shit out of people, it's the wiring," says one of the sources, who asked not to be identified for fear of managerial repercussions. "This could be a real maintenance nightmare. We've got electricians saying they've replaced more sensors in 18 months than you would in 20 years in a normal building. And if the electrical system is going to hell, what's happening to the collections?"

Tom Shaughnessy, university librarian, says he has not heard about the standing water in the vents or the corroded wiring. "I don't think it can be that significant, because this is the first I've heard about it. I'll certainly look into it," he told City Pages. Shaughnessy acknowledges that there have been problems with high humidity in the building, but he blames a faulty dehumidifier, which is still under warranty: "The fact that it is not as stable as it's supposed to be is of concern. But the environment is still a hell of a lot better than some of the places where we kept the collections before. I'm happy with the building. Somebody asked me the other day, 'If you had it to do over again, would you?' My answer was, 'Yes.' Without a beat."

Last month, a U of M audit produced a three-inch-thick report on the library, which includes interviews with a number of library critics, including Calvin Alexander. While audits of public institutions are generally available to the public, the university refused City Pages' request to review the document. Tracy Smith, associate general counsel at the university, says the report is protected by an attorney-client exception. Don Gemberling, the director of the Minnesota Department of Administration's Information Policy Analysis Division, says he is not surprised at the U's reticence. "When they don't want something out, they're usually willing to do battle over it," he observes.

Alexander guesses the U's reluctance to share information about the project will calcify as more problems surface. "It just gets worse and worse, and I don't see any way to turn it around. The university is going to put more and more time and effort and money into a facility that fundamentally doesn't work."

 
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