When Disaster Strikes: The Fall and Rise of a Library

By Curzon, Susan Carol | American Libraries, April 2000 | Go to article overview

When Disaster Strikes: The Fall and Rise of a Library


Curzon, Susan Carol, American Libraries


RECONSTRUCTING AN EARTHQUAKE-DAMAGED LIBRARY HINGES ON RESHORING STAFF SPIRIT AS WELL AS BRICK AND MORTAR

Shortly after 4:30 a.m. on Monday, January 17, 1994, a 6.8 earthquake struck the Los Angeles area. Indescribable jolting awakened me. A roar of sound accompanied the extraordinary movement as neighboring houses twisted, windows popped, and the contents of cupboards flew and crashed. My husband and I attempted to move to a doorframe for safety but the churning made standing impossible. Severe injury or death seemed likely when suddenly the earth fell silent. We moved quickly to a doorframe but a severe aftershock threw us to the floor. Then, once again, the earth was silent.

Within minutes of the quake, I developed a terrible sense of unease about the Oviatt Library that grew and grew even as we surveyed our own situation. Finally, when we realized that we were relatively safe, I told my husband that I must go to the library. It was 6:30 a.m.

As it turned out, I had good reason to be uneasy. California State University/Northridge, which was six miles from the epicenter, sustained damage more extensive than any other university in the history of the United States. This is the story of our recovery, and the lessons we've learned.

It was not a time to be separated so the family came with me to the campus. No traffic lights were operational and several of the streets were damaged too seriously for us to use. We detoured a number of times, and finally turned onto campus.

I don't know if I'll ever forget my first view of the library (AL, Mar. 1994, cover, p. 214). To be sure, it was standing but I could not contain the physical pain and deep sorrow I felt upon seeing the damage. I saw the north side first, at a distance. Huge pieces of the facade and the roof overhang had fallen. Windows were smashed and many of the towering columns were loose.

We parked at a reasonable distance in case the building was still falling. I got out of the car and started circling the building. Closer in, I could see through the window openings the rubble of contents on the floor. As I continued circling, a campus officer came running toward me, warning of an approaching chemical cloud generated by explosions in the science labs. I jumped back into the car and headed for the campus police station in the hopes of finding some colleagues. That was Monday.

On Wednesday, we were able to enter the library for the first time. I went in with a small team of engineers and facilities staff. Inside, it was cold, dark, silent, and broken. As I stepped through the door, I had a feeling that I had never experienced in a library before--the building felt abandoned.

No matter where we went there was destruction--computers, file cabinets, supplies, desktops, and even heavy furniture had tumbled over everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of volumes were on the floor but the stacks themselves, properly earthquake braced, were still standing. Many ceiling tiles had fallen, ceiling metal was badly twisted downward, and shattered glass was everywhere.

Oddly enough, what I remember most was the dust. For weeks afterward, the library contained a visible, interior cloud of dust that floated everywhere. It had a very adhesive quality and stuck to everything. Even now, I sometimes find that dust on library items.

Despite all this devastation, there was one real moment of pleasure when the structural engineering team pronounced the building structurally sound and the damage, however dreadful to my eye, as only cosmetic and readily repairable. Their professional opinion tempered our decision-making in the months ahead. Unfortunately, subsequent events proved them wrong (AL, Sept. 1994, p. 709-710).

Then-CSU/Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson decided to open the campus just two weeks after its regularly scheduled opening date. This gave us approximately four weeks to reestablish library service. …

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