The Amazing Sinking Library
March 9, 2005 5:32 AM   Subscribe

Indiana University's main library is not sinking. Neither is the University of Waterloo campus library, but what about the University of Calgary's Mackimmie Library? If the University of Nottingham's Jubilee library is really sinking, readers better grab their snorkels. But guess what — The University of Nebraska at Omaha library is actually sinking, and the University of Las Vegas Lied Library came this close. This library sunk into an ancient burial site, and now it's haunted! Finally, is it art? Or does Melbourne, Australia have the greatest sinking library ever? See Snopes on one of the most persistent of urban legends — the amazing sinking library.
posted by taz (36 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What a great post to wake up to, what a cool colection of links. Thank you for sharing!
posted by headspace at 5:40 AM on March 9, 2005

I work in a university library and the building is less than ten years old, but there are already cracks beginning to run down a few of the walls. Some of the staff assume that we are sinking, or perhaps sliding since we're on a bit of a hill with a walk-out basement in the back.

I agree with the Snopes argument that blaming architects for not counting on book weight is pretty silly though. I've worked in a few modern facilities and the weight capacity, both by floor and by section of the building, seems to be common knowledge passed on from the architects.

Nice links btw. I didn't know the notion of the "sinking library" was so widespread.
posted by p3t3 at 6:21 AM on March 9, 2005

I've heard this legend about several college libraries myself, including my alma mater. It's nice to know that it's true somewhere.
posted by Plutor at 6:28 AM on March 9, 2005

The University of Michigan has its own "sinking building". It isn't the library though. It is Dennison Hall, the Physics building. Even though the physics department faculty were in no way responsible for the construction of the building, the rumor persists for the sole purpose of laughing at those whacky physicists. Don't they know anything about mass and gravity?

I still want to believe.
posted by Armen Tanzarian at 6:30 AM on March 9, 2005

One should never, ever underestimate an architect's lack of understanding when it comes to designing a library. The past three years of dealing with architects over the renovation of the library I work in has been an eye-opening experience.

"You want 'sha-elves' for 'bah-ooks'? What are these 'bah-ooks' you speak of?"

"We've decided to place only one photocopier in the library. In the basement. Locked in a room. Guarded by orcs."

"Your bookdrop is ugly, so we've decided to build an enclosure for it. What do you mean you also have to take books out of it after people drop them in?"

The muck we're sinking in certainly is not of the literal kind.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:42 AM on March 9, 2005

We always used to hear this particular legend happened at Texas A&M. Sounded like it could have been true.
posted by ColdChef at 6:47 AM on March 9, 2005

The best thing about the U. Waterloo rumour is that there seemed to be good physical evidence supporting it. Back in the early '80s, when I was an undergraduate, there was a lot of excavation around the foundations of the main library (the sinking one). But it wasn't to shore up the building, it was to replace some watermains.
posted by djfiander at 6:54 AM on March 9, 2005

Well, to be fair, the IU library isn't sinking in any literal sense. Then again, they're systematically ripping out all the source materials and replacing them with 'Information Commons' areas and 'Technology Project Incubators'. IC's are nothing more than glorified computer labs with couches and the incubators are more for faculty/staff than student use.

And if I am bitter it's because of the books--won't someone please think of the books--not because I'm losing my cozy office for a bleh cube in some incubator cube farm..
posted by Fezboy! at 6:58 AM on March 9, 2005

Truly weird. The large municipal central library I grew up in was also apparently sinking, but I can't recollect whether I ever saw or heard any reliable facts or if it was just all rumors and hearsay.

After some searching I have a feeling I'm going to have to call the library and possibly wade through that awkward "Holy crap, are you actually nuts?" period before I find someone who knows what I'm talking about.

I'm pretty sure that it was indeed sinking, though. Many buildings in that area were/are sinking, due to high water tables.

It used to trouble me late at night and keep me up, the thought of all those books sinking into the earth to be swallowed up and never read again.
posted by loquacious at 7:00 AM on March 9, 2005

My hometown library (Elgin, IL) was sinking before they built the new building. It was sinking into the river, and you could tell cause of all the water that would seep up. It was so damp and dank in the basement where I had to work sometimes. Bleck. An example of "we didn't calculate the weight of the books."
posted by agregoli at 7:01 AM on March 9, 2005

Not a library, but rumor has it that the Palisades Center Mall in New York is sinking. I've been there once myself, but didn't go in the parking garage.

Also, a Lowe's home improvement store in the next town over started to sink. It was built on part of an old landfill. They closed it down a year after it opened, and while it is still standing, they are almost done building another one a mile away.
posted by daninnj at 7:05 AM on March 9, 2005

I've long been a big fan of college-specific urban legends (and who isn't a fan of urban legends in general?) but I had never heard this one until the other day a caller on some NPR show presented-as-fact the legend about their own campus library while the guest hesistantly debunked that as a probable urban legend.

The one I used to hear, architecturally, was how the campus building in question was designed during the sixties (a time of great unrest on college campuses, ya see) and is based on the layout of a prison.
posted by stevil at 7:25 AM on March 9, 2005

My beloved University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, took this sinking library thing literally, and just dropped (OK, built) one entire building down a hole (yeah, OK, in specially excavated caverns kept at 62 degrees F and 50% humidity, considered ideal storage conditions): see the Elmer L. Andersen Library, the U of M's underground archive.
The archives consist of "two enormous caverns, each two stories high and the length of two football fields" -- and there is supposed to be room for three more such caverns. The front access doors are big enough to admit two semi-trailer trucks side-by-side. It's frickin' huge. And it's pretty damn cool. Well, cool enough for archival storage.
posted by mooncrow at 7:35 AM on March 9, 2005

My alma mater's library wasn't sinking, but it did contain several hundred thousand more books than originally planned for, and the floors were cracking and sagging under the extra weight. One could put a rubber ball in a corner and it would roll swiftly toward the center of the room. (I was on the crew that emptied it when they were expanding/renovating it.)
posted by goatdog at 7:36 AM on March 9, 2005

I have heard this rumor about the school I went to as well as UMass Amherst.

While I don't know if either are true, having studied architecture for a few years myself while in school, I too would likely not believe that the architect (more accurately the engineering firm since they are usually a separate entity on the project, sometimes for legal reasons depending on your state I think) would overlook such a thing.

That said, I could completely see it being a case of the architect/engineers being told that the library needs to be of size X and that it will need to hold Y books. They design it for that, and then over time the college gets more books and instead of building a new library, overcrowds the one that it currently has, pushing it past the specs for which it was designed. (also arguable that the college would not want to spend the extra at the start to engineer the building for future growth - I have been in plenty of meetings with executives client-side making awful decisions and being pig-headed about it)

On a side note, there are still plenty of cases of architects being out of their element making stupid design decisions. The art building on the campus where I went to school was designed by an architect from Texas and all of his buildings prior to that one had been in the desert. Our campus is in the northeast mountains, but he still designed it for the desert - even accounting for blocking the sun... at the wrong angle for where we were located (and to make matters more amusing, the site was excavated incorrectly and so the building had to be rotated on site, so it was designed to block the harsh sun which we didn't get, at the angle for Texas sunlight, and then in the completely wrong direction... PERFECT!).
posted by MrFancypants at 7:42 AM on March 9, 2005

heh. As an alumni (but not a graduate) of UMASS Amherst, I was quickly reminded of the W.E.B du bois library on campus, a 26-story tower of books [and falling bricks]: Apparently, when the building went up in the late 1970's, the architect didn't figure the weight of the thousands of books into his calculations. After a few weary years, bricks started popping-out of the facade and crashing down to the walkways below. UMASS corrected this problem by erecting a crappy chain-link fence around the perimeter of the library so that you couldn't walk around the actual building, and had to take a convoluted route to get inside. They also emptied the top floors to keep the upper weight distribution very light. Or at least that's what we heard as students.
posted by naxosaxur at 7:58 AM on March 9, 2005

They said this about my alma mater's library, but, being that it was in New Orleans, everything was sinking...
posted by Katemonkey at 8:01 AM on March 9, 2005

Heh, I remember hearing about the amazing IU sinking library when I first toured the campus, back in the day.

Fezboy, is the whole first floor now an Information Commons? I know the library labs used to be absolutely packed when I went there. What are they doing to the library now?
posted by SisterHavana at 8:08 AM on March 9, 2005

Mooncrow, our library may not be sinking, but it is, unfortunately, leaking.
posted by bigbadem at 9:01 AM on March 9, 2005

The Undergraduate Library at the University of Illinois isn't sinking; it was built underground to begin with (see last paragraph).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:14 AM on March 9, 2005

While I don't know if either are true, having studied architecture for a few years myself while in school, I too would likely not believe that the architect (more accurately the engineering firm since they are usually a separate entity on the project, sometimes for legal reasons depending on your state I think) would overlook such a thing.

I would. I knew a hospital architect who created nine foot ceilings in an operating room. Surgery lamps came in at about shoulder level. Suitable for keeping fast food warm, not so good for operating.

(PS- These guys did the Westport Ct library on landfill. Not so stable. Many extra dollars to fix that little problem after the fact. Always check your references)
posted by IndigoJones at 9:15 AM on March 9, 2005

The story about the Waterloo library was one of the first things I heard when I transferred there. I think the legend is helped by the ditch (concrete and gravel) that surrounds the library for some reason. There doesn't appear to be any purpose to it that I can figure out, but then again I'm no engineer. It certainly does make it look like it's sunk into a hole!

Ah, the giant cube. I've passed out while studying on the 10th floor many times.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 9:23 AM on March 9, 2005

Sorry for the OT
SisterHavana: 1st floor undergrad side is all IC now. 5th floor is computer labs too and you certainly wouldn't recognize the main lobby. I've been told that the second floor of the graduate side is where the incubator cube farm is going. I don't know what else is happening except that pretty much every floor of the undergrad side is chock full of construction workers/equipment. They've also built a mondo archival unit out near 10th & the bypass and are moving all sorts of texts out there to make room for all the new computer space.

The change is probably for the best and all but that doesn't save my little office and I'll be nostagic for the smell of decomposing paper if they move all the books out of there. Can it even be a university library if it doesn't have low ceilings, weak incandescent lighting, and a powerful reek of must?
posted by Fezboy! at 9:58 AM on March 9, 2005

A school I went to had the opposite problem- all of the buildings were rising out of the ground. The school was built on a former garbage dump which was slowly settling, resulting in the buildings getting higher and higher than the ground every year, at the rate of an inch or two a year.

They had driven pilings in various places around campus when they were looking for bedrock. The settling earth would expose the tops of these a little bit every year, and every 2-3 years they would cut them off.

All the buildings floors were at about eye level from the pavement outside when I graduated. The cost of constantly repaving and rebuilding the ramps leading up to each doorway must be staggering.

Also, garbage dumps smell. Not a great place for a Middle School (Jr. high).
posted by Four Flavors at 10:00 AM on March 9, 2005

naxosaxur: you went to UMass Amherst too? When I was there the library hadn't yet been named to honor DuBois but I heard the same story about the weight of the books, as well as similar stories about certain dorms on the hillside that were supposedly working their way down the hill because of poor engineering.

I never heard the falling bricks attributed to the weight of the books, though. The library was purported to be the tallest brick-faced building in the world (it is not actually structurally composed of bricks). But something was done incorrectly and the slim facing bricks would periodically fall off. Thus the chain-link fence and the cement canopy under which one walked to gain entry. I don't know why the bricks fell but suspect a combination of poor adhesive and high winds. I also hadn't heard about the top floors being emptied because of book weight. I do remember the top floor being set up as a study lounge, and one where, believe it or not, they allowed smoking. This was not all that long ago.
posted by Songdog at 10:31 AM on March 9, 2005

"The Homer Babbidge Library at the University of Connecticut at Storrs has been plagued with problems since its erection in 1978."

Wow. Now that is some serious sexual dysfunction.
posted by flarbuse at 10:32 AM on March 9, 2005

The library at my alma mater was also reported to be moving... in this case, sliding down a hill. I found a link to a satirical document entitled "Not the Rensselaer Handbook", circa 1985, which says the library is moving (in the link, scroll down to "Buildings which Move"). I suspect it is, but not at the 1 inch per year rate they cite. I know for a fact that another building they mention, West Hall, is moving, since none of the sidewalks leading up to it line up anywhere close to the doorways. When I was at school, though, we were told not to worry about the building sliding all the way down; it stayed more or less in place because on the uphill side, "RPI sucks and" on the downhill side "Troy [NY] blows."
posted by Doohickie at 10:52 AM on March 9, 2005

The main library at Northwestern, my alma mater, is built on the lakefill part of the campus, and so we were also given this particular urban legend to cherish with its own little nugget of truth at the core.

But, then, we DO have the "Everybody in the frat banged Ann-Margaret on the pool table" legend, which I'll bet none of you have.
posted by briank at 11:24 AM on March 9, 2005

The second best Halloween costume I've seen was back in the last 80's at Hampshire College. One student sat on another's shoulders. Both were covered by a sheet painted to look like bricks. The top student dropped small bits of concrete and brick on people around them.

Yes, they were the UMass Library.
posted by QIbHom at 11:30 AM on March 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Like naxosaxur and Songdog, I attended UMass at Amherst and was told that the engineers failed to take into account the live load of the books. (Live load being the weight of anything the goes in a structure, dead load being the weight of the structure itself.) This is why the bricks popped out (or maybe it was faulty grout) and there were books on every other floor only.

I was also told (by the architecture department faculty) that the library was based on recycled plans; that is, the building had originally been designed as an office building and the plans were bought at a discount. This would explain why the engineers (it would not have been the architects doing the calculations in a project of this size) had not taken into account the weight of the books: they simply forgot to recalculate.

I think this is a more believable scenario than the one of the stupid architect/engineer. The live load is something that is routine and simply would not be overlooked.

On preview: QIbHom, that's fucken hilarious. Those crazy Hampshire kids.

robocop is bleeding, I'm sorry you have dealt with stupid architects. I can assure you, they are the exception, and most of our breed actually understand the "books" of which you speak.
posted by Specklet at 11:33 AM on March 9, 2005

I know of an Episcopal Church that was adding a new sanctuary (or "nave" as they call it) that was on the 2nd floor. The new nave was to have a marble baptismal font large enough for adults to be immersed (which is not usual for Episcopal churches).

When it came time to build the thing and put in the font, it was discovered that the floor was not designed to hold that much weight (including the water that would fill it). So they had to settle for fiberglass. Some figured that the architect, also an Episcopalian, didn't quite believe they were going to go ahead with this crazy idea, that sanity would prevail and the church would just get a regular birdbath-sized font.
posted by straight at 12:33 PM on March 9, 2005

Great post. I went to UWaterloo also, and the legend was very persistent. I think part of the fun of it is that the school is well known for engineering, so it was amusing to poke fun at the engineers and whatnot over it.

Loved the page you linked to from Chris Redmond - such a nerd, but such a flashback. Will have to mail it around, thanks.
posted by livii at 12:48 PM on March 9, 2005

when i was sitting on the toilet, at college, one day, the earth moved. i was quite disturbed by this - it was as if the world had turned to jelly for a moment, and at that time i hadn't experienced any earthquakes/temblors - so i told my tutor. who was rather amused and condescending.

anyway, a month or so later i got a letter from the master saying that he, too, had felt something, and was glad of the confirmation. apparently, according to his enquiries, it was caused by the city library sinking slightly, which had caused the ground to shake.

in retrospect i'm not sure i believe him. maybe it was sarcasm. who can tell?
posted by andrew cooke at 12:57 PM on March 9, 2005

This is such a well put together FPP. Of course we have the same legend at the University of Toronto, though I think there is something to it. Two floors are empty, supposedly because they didn't take into account the weight of books.

But it might just be wishful thinking. Robarts Library was allegedly designed to look like a Canada goose. It is the ugliest building most of us have ever seen. Sinking would be a sweet release.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 1:13 PM on March 9, 2005

I would doubt that the brick spall problem at the Amherst library would have anything to do with the live loads on the floors. Brick spall is usually caused by freeze-thaw cycles, where moisture gets into small spaces in the brick, then expands when it freezes, breaking off pieces of brick.

It is possible, however, that the exterior brick has improperly detailed expansion joints that don't allow for the overall expansion and contraction of the masonry. Then anything that causes the wall to move, like temperature changes (or deflection of the floors under the weight of the books) would stress the wall so that it might crack or spall.

Anyway, as specklet alluded to above, any improper calculation of live loads (e.g. book weights) would ultimately be the fault of the structural engineer, not the architect (actual legal responsibility is more complicated, but we'll leave it at that for now.) Speaking as a structural engineer, I'm sure we'd love to be able to blame the architect for everything that goes wrong in a building's design, but that's not the case.
posted by pitchblende at 1:20 PM on March 9, 2005

Building sinkage would also be the fault of the any geotechnical engineer involved, since they're responsible for determining the soil bearing pressure (what the soil can actually support) and recommending a type of foundation for whatever proposed building is going up.

We had an odd legend going around my school that one of the buildings was designed by an architect who was also doing a building at Cornell, but they got the plans mixed up and built the wrong one at each school, which explains why there's one stone gothic styled building in a sea of brick classical buildings. Why people didn't see how ridiculous that story was just on its face, I'll never know.
posted by LionIndex at 1:38 PM on March 9, 2005

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