Mold destroys 600,000 library books

The damaged books were stored in an underground cavern off site.
Books line the shelves on the third floor of the east wing of Ellis Library. About 20 percent of MU Libraries’ collection was damaged at an off campus location.

The MU Libraries have more than 3 million books in their collections, and they ran out of space to store those books years ago.

Recently it was discovered that 600,000 books, approximately 20 percent of MU’s entire collection, were covered in mold. The damaged books were being stored in an underground cavern north of Interstate 70. The cavern, Sub Terra, is run by an independent company.

The books in storage were lesser-used books that the libraries did not have room for in their open stacks. Some of the stored texts were published prior to the Civil War.

Library administrators will not be able to save all 600,000 texts because there is not enough money in library funds to do so.

“The MU Libraries are underfunded for the same reason that the university itself is underfunded,” Director of Libraries Jim Cogswell said in an email. “The state support of higher education is such that Missouri ranks 44th out of the 50 states in per-capita funding for fiscal year 2013. It has been in the bottom 10 percent of the states for decades.”

It would cost about $3 per volume in order to get rid of the mold in the books. Getting rid of the mold from all 600,000 texts would cost about $1.8 million. Many of the ruined collections were already online, available in digital forms.

MU Libraries do not receive any direct funding from tuition dollars, unlike their counterparts at other major universities. The student body has grown more than 40 percent since 2002, but the library’s budget has remained the same.

Libraries are funded through an annual allocation from MU’s operating budget. In 2013, the total operations budget for the library was more than $17 million.

Compared to other research institutions equal to or bigger in size, MU Libraries do not have enough money to run properly.

“We have explored the possibility of instituting a student library fee, but we are told that the (Board of) Curators will not consent to implement such a fee without the students voluntarily requesting one,” Cogswell said.

Other schools such as the University of Minnesota have been using underground storage since the 1990s.

The storage caverns north of Interstate 70 are not part of MU, and faculty have no control of the environmental conditions underground.

In the 1990s, MU had planned for an expansion of Ellis Library, where it would add one or two more floors. At the same time, the university was under attack from administration and legislators in Jefferson City, and the funding requests for the library expansion were denied.

History professor Kerby Miller has written many books and articles using the resources in the libraries. He said that even though an enormous amount of digital resources are available through online stores such as Google Books, they are still very expensive.

Right now, Miller said, the library is too underfunded to afford subscriptions to all the JSTOR collections available. JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books and other resources.

“It’s very easy for a member of the Board of Curators or a legislator in Jeff City to say, ‘Well who needs books anymore, anyway. Everything’s available on Internet,’ ” he said. “But if they don’t fund the libraries sufficiently so that the library can provide access to those online materials, then it’s just the same as having those books destroyed.”

Miller said he does not think the decision to put the books in underground storage was made only because the libraries did not have sufficient funds. He also said he thinks it might have something to do with the relationship between MU and the politicians who control the university’s purse strings.

Miller also said he has talked to some scientists who work at the university. The scientists would have never advised the school or library administration to put those books in an underground facility without proper control of the storage environment.

In response to the concerns about the mold bloom, the library added a mold FAQ page to the MU Libraries website Feb. 7.

According to the page, administrators have also decided to create the Collections Enhancement Fund, which will help alleviate some of the costs of the mold treatment.

Library administration hopes to have a running website for the fund later this month, which will allow people to donate money. The fund will also help with the cost of rebuilding the ruined collections.

MU Libraries used to have a full-time preservation officer who cared for the collections, but that position was cut and the library has not been able to find the funds to reinstate it.

“The most important thing is the books, and the most important thing is for the library to get better funding, so that this kind of disaster doesn’t happen again,” Miller said. “It never would’ve happened if the library got the funding requests it made years ago.”

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