May 2018

The Nation Reviewed

Salvaging ANU’s sodden books

By Sam Vincent
How and why did the Chifley Library flood?

The water rose fast and, this being a library, it rose alphabetically. Approaching from the north, it first appeared on CCTV footage in the building’s microfilm study area at 9.12am. By 9.30am, when comms were lost, it had flooded the whole basement. Gathering force and flotsam – fish, silt, furniture, a fridge – the torrent pushed books off shelves, and a chair through a wall. By midday, “A” through “Du” of the Australian National University’s humanities collection was three shelves deep in water.

On the weekend of February 24–25, ANU received 164.4 millimetres of rain, most of it falling on the Sunday morning. Sullivans Creek, usually little more than a drain, burst its banks, inundating the biggest of the university’s five libraries, the Chifley. In some parts of the basement, water pooled for more than a week.

From her office window on Level 3 of the Chifley one month later, University Librarian Roxanne Missingham helps me visualise the flood, pointing out earthmovers now busily excavating the adjacent building site. The day of the flood, she says, their roofs were small yellow islands in a sea of brown.

The Chifley’s electrical, air-conditioning, ventilation and IT systems were down, and the nearby Hancock Library was opened early to accommodate displaced students.

The next day the entire campus was closed – the first time since a hailstorm almost 11 years earlier, to the day. Missingham and her staff spent it with the university’s crisis management team, devising a plan. If the library was going to be closed for a while, how could they minimise interruption to services, and how would they deal with the collection?

As well as the books, thousands of serials, pamphlets, microform and microfiche kept in the basement had been sodden. It was only on Wednesday, February 28 that staff were able to descend safely to the basement. By then, the collection was starting to decompose. Books were expanding in the humidity, breaking the compactuses they sat on and forming strange, accordion-like humps.

Missingham and her team were racing against the clock. Paper conservator Kim Morris advised them they had around a week to decide what to save before mould would take over and potentially spread upstairs. “Microfiche has gelatine in it,” explains Missingham. “Fungus loves gelatine.”

The university’s rare books and manuscripts, fortunately held elsewhere, were unscathed. But the Chifley is a working library, integral to the everyday needs of teachers and students. To that end, priority was given to its two-hour loan collection, most of which wasn’t wet, and had only minor fungal exposure. It was moved to another library.

Of the damaged material, staff wearing protective equipment retrieved ephemera least likely to be easily replaced: pamphlets with limited print runs were wrapped in plastic and placed in freezers, lowered to minus 18 degrees Celsius to put them in stasis for up to 12 months. “Here’s a tip for your readers,” says Missingham, “don’t get out your hair dryer if you drop a book in the bath! Put it in the freezer, give yourself a year to think about it.”

After cross-referencing the damaged monographs with the catalogue from the National Library of Australia, it was found that there were only two titles that existed nowhere else. Two. These were retrieved.

Despite library staff working as fast as they could, one week after the flood the decision was made to destroy everything remaining in the basement to quarantine the spread of mould. For the next three weeks, trucks ferried nearly 112,000 books and tens of thousands of other items between the library and a dump. All up, roughly 5 to 8 per cent of the university’s holdings were lost.

“When we had to make the call that we would lose the whole collection,” says Missingham, “it was very distressing for us all. But that 99.999 per cent can be replaced, that is really an important thing for us.”

The insurance cost is expected to be in the tens of millions of dollars, and though ANU is currently focused on the immediate needs of staff and students (an hourly bus will operate between the campus and the National Library, and undergraduates now have access to a free inter-university library service previously reserved for staff and postgraduates), it has vowed to rebuild the collection. But how could this happen in the first place? What is a library, if not a safe house for books?

This should have been a year of celebration for the Chifley: the library turned 50 three days before the flood. “We’ve been here for 50 years without anything happening,” says Missingham. “Is it a 50-year flood? I don’t know – it was just a flood.”

Much off-the-record grumbling has occurred among academic staff that the “hubris” of razing the university refectory and surrounding buildings – leaving nothing between Sullivans Creek and the Chifley but a hole in the ground – was both a factor in the flood and a symptom of the wider commercialisation of higher education.

An architect who has detailed knowledge of the Chifley and wishes to remain anonymous points out that even if this was a once-in-a-century flood it should have been taken into account when the building was conceived. A bend of Sullivans Creek was eliminated to build the library, and so water was diverted into a narrow channel apparently ill equipped to deal with a storm surge. (Indeed, that part of the campus has flooded before, around 50 years ago, but not to the same degree.)

Missingham can remember books being stored in the library’s basement as long ago as 1973, her first year as an undergraduate student. But the architect says the basement was never designed to store anything precious; it was designed for services and staff amenities, not as a library.

When the Chifley reopened on March 19, it did so with empty shelves in the basement. A friend who has taught at ANU since 1961 cannot recall what was in the basement when the Chifley first opened, but says the mass storage of books there coincided with “the coming of the computers” upstairs in the 1980s and ’90s.

It’s hard to escape the metaphor of that migration, and of this story: bygone technology, physical objects and the world of solo reading pushed underground to make room for computers and collective workspaces. The old ways of learning, if only for the time being, washed away.

Sam Vincent

Sam Vincent is a Canberra-based writer and the author of Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars.


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