The Sul­li­vans Creek Scrolls

The Monthly (Australia) - - MAY 2018 - by Sam Vin­cent

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 ar­chi­tect says the base­ment was never de­signed to store any­thing pre­cious; it was de­signed for ser­vices and staff ameni­ties.

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.

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