Satan's Shelving: Urban Library Legends

By Hathaway-Bell, Stacey | American Libraries, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Satan's Shelving: Urban Library Legends


Hathaway-Bell, Stacey, American Libraries


Librarians love to tell stories, especially about libraries and other librarians. As in other professions, many of their stories are true; some are, well, not so true; and some are just plain false.

In many cases the veracity of the story is not really at issue. These stories are often cautionary tales that teach other librarians or library patrons lessons about libraries. They spring from hazy origins and spread in many forms, changing details and locales but maintaining enough elements to make them identifiable. After a while many of these tales become bona fide urban legends.

Urban legends can be said to be the dominant form of folk narrative of our time. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia(Garland Publishing, 1996) defines an urban legend as "an apocryphal contemporary story told as true but incorporating traditional motifs and usually attributed to a friend of a friend (FOAF)." While it might seem that urban legends would exist primarily among less-educated or simply gullible people, there are many urban legends relating to academia. Highly educated occupational groups such as intensive-care-unit nurses also have a large body of folk-lore, and libraries and librarians are not immune to the creation and dissemination of urban legends and other lore.

One reason for the continuing popularity of urban legends is the fact that they dramatically illustrate dangers in our lives and warn us to avoid behaviors that might cause us harm. A colleague recently posted notices she had received via e-mail (a common vector for urban legends nowadays) regarding "Blue Star Acid" (LSD that is said to be randomly distributed to children via stamps with blue stars on them) and the "Good News Virus" (a virus that is distributed via e-mail that erases one's hard disk). Both of these urban legends have been debunked at length, but both with their warnings of dire consequences and almost-believable content are easy to believe.

"The lack of verification in no way diminishes the appeal urban legends have for us," writes Jan Harold Brunvand, author of The Vanishing Hitchhiker (W. W. Norton, 1981) and editor of American Folklore. "We enjoy them merely as stories and we tend to at least half-believe them as possibly accurate reports. And the legends we tell, as with any folklore, reflect many of the hopes, fears, and anxieties of our time."

That sinking feeling

So what fears might librarians or library patrons have that are illustrated by urban legends? Apparently there are quite a few. The most widely known and well documented example is the sinking library legend. I have collected several variants of this tale, one of which involves the U.S. Naval Academy's Nimitz Library in Annapolis, which is built on oystershell landfill in the Severn River.

Variants can be found in Brunvand's book The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends (W. W. Norton, 1993). The story has been told about many academic libraries in the United States and Canada and about at least one public library, the Newton Library in Massachusetts. One variant that does not appear in his book is a reply from "J. Chew" that I received from an inquiry I made on the Usenet group alt.folklore.urban.

"Today at lunch I heard a new twist on the old chestnut about the college library that sinks because the architect forgot to account for the weight of the books. One fellow was telling the other that the surrounds of the library were mortared bricks and the strain of the settling building and ground displacement caused the bricks to spall, throwing chips many feet into the air."

Legends of sinking libraries are widely disseminated and often believed by patrons and librarians alike. I distinctly remember hearing about a sinking library at least once during library school and I had no reason to disbelieve the tale because it is plausible. According to Brunvand, there is one verified account of a real sinking library: the Sweetwater County (Wyo. …

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