Submerged: How a California Library Was Invaded by Rising Groundwater-And Survived

By Kim, Taeock; Goodwater, Leanna | American Libraries, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Submerged: How a California Library Was Invaded by Rising Groundwater-And Survived


Kim, Taeock, Goodwater, Leanna, American Libraries


Imagine your library inspiring these headlines:

"The Library Blues!"

"Plagued by Water!"

It happened to us. The opinion editor of the campus newspaper summed up our situation when she complained about students "having to battle lung disease or ruining their leather shoes in the basement swamp. ... When it's a health hazard to find a book for class, what message is that sending students?"

How did our library get into this dire condition? It was a combination of heavier-than-normal rainfall, a high water table, and a library whose main book collection--approximately 500,000 volumes--was housed in the basement.

The Michel Orradre Library is the main campus library for Santa Clara University, a comprehensive Jesuit university located at the southern end of San Francisco Bay in what is nicknamed Silicon Valley. Only a few feet above sea level, this area of California is traversed by underground streams, one of which has caused flooding problems in the basements of several buildings on our campus. For nearly two years we hovered on the edge of disaster. We could have lost the entire collection, but we didn't. And therein lies a tale. ...

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Our story begins in the spring of 1997, when we discovered dirty groundwater seeping up in the basement around several of the building's support columns. To block further seepage, workers drilled holes around the column bases and injected a silicone substance. At the time, this treatment appeared to solve the problem. However, in February 1998, the waters returned much worse than before. The contractor returned and tried the same technique, but once the seepage stopped around one pillar, the water migrated and began to leak into adjacent areas. Eventually, it returned to areas that had been sealed the year before.

Abandoning Band-Aid solutions

It was now apparent that the Band-Aid treatment we had been using wasn't working, and we needed a new approach to the problem. As Elizabeth Salzer, the university librarian, noted later, "Although in retrospect it may seem that the university was too slow to pursue a solution to the library's water problems, there was from the very beginning a desire to solve the problem quickly, with minimal disruption to users, and at a manageable cost. The initial work to seal the columns seemed to be successful and to meet the library's goal for minimal disruption of services."

Standing water covered the floor in many spots throughout the basement and at the foot of the elevator shaft. As the concrete slab underneath absorbed water, the adhesive of the linoleum tiles softened and expanded, oozing out around the edges. Many wet floor and carpet tiles had to be removed, and the terrazzo floor in the lobby was badly cracked. The book stacks remained open for use, but caution was advised because of the danger of slipping.

Growing mold problems

This was not the only danger, however. The air smelled moldy, and we began to worry about the collection. Visible fungal growth began to appear on walls throughout the basement, particularly in small, enclosed areas such as the restrooms, electrical room, and staff offices. Several staff members began complaining of health problems caused by conditions in the basement; three had problems so severe that they filed workers' compensation claims and had to work outside the building on doctors' orders for months.

Upon advice from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, we posted signs warning of the presence of mold and advising anyone with asthma or allergies to avoid the basement. We offered to retrieve books for anyone concerned about these dangers, and this new paging service imposed extra burdens on our circulation department.

In April, planners proposed the total evacuation of all the contents of the basement to install a new floor eight inches above the current level, with the resulting space underneath used to prevent groundwater from reaching the surface. …

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