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Is the university library really sinking?

Paul Greatrix addresses one of the most persistent and widespread campus myths: that your library is slowly sinking due to the weight of books.
This article is more than 1 year old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

I’m getting on a bit now but as a student in the mid 80s, in the pre-internet era, I distinctly remember hearing tales about library of a university in Glasgow sinking into the mud.

The suggestion was that the architects who designed the building forgot to take account of the weight of the books.

Since then I have heard this story about dozens of other university libraries and it remains an incredibly potent myth in higher education. Not just in the UK – I’ve heard the same thing from other countries too.

But imagine if you will the idea that an architect (university-trained remember) would “forget” to address the single most fundamental requirement of any library – that it be able to hold the weight of the items it is there to store. It’s not going to happen.

Given the prevalence of this kind of thing on the web these days it was perhaps unsurprising that we at the University of Nottingham would receive a Freedom of Information request about one of our libraries. One that looks like it is sitting in the middle of a lake (pictured above, yesterday).

Here’s the freedom of information request response:

Dear Sarah,

We are writing in response to your Freedom Of Information request relating to Djanogly Library sinking received on 25th July 2020.

You asked-

We understand that for the past several years there have been rumours at the student and staff level that the Djanogly Library is sinking. Please confirm or deny this with adequate narrative to satiety the public interest in this matter. Please also provide internal and external reports relating to the matter, details of any work done since the completion of the library to correct any such issues and/or any planned future work, and associated costs.

There is no documentation held by the University of Nottingham to support your statement, it is no more than an urban legend.

Whilst Djanogly library is surrounded by water, the building was erected first, and the lake then constructed around it, not the other way round- as is the case for many of the other buildings on Jubilee Campus. None of these buildings are sinking.

We are unable to supply the information you are seeking as it simply does not exist, as per the Freedom of Information Act 2000, this email acts as a Refusal Notice for your request.

I trust this meets your requirements.

It really is a widespread myth. See this story from Indiana University for example where, guess what, the library has for many years had the reputation of being designed by yet another forgetful architect:

For years, IU students and visitors have heard the claim that the Wells Library is sinking into the ground because the architect forgot to account for the weight of all the books.

According to legend, the same fate has befallen major university libraries all over the country. Folklorists call it the Legend of the Architect’s Blunder, and it has been around for decades. The Wells Library, like the rest of the campus, sits on a 94-foot thick layer of limestone. It is not going anywhere.

Some years ago the myth was rounded up quite comprehensively by Snopes. It was noted that it actually takes a number of different forms – with the architecture profession again attracting widespread scorn for its failure to remember that student halls have residents and swimming pools are meant to contain water:

Such beliefs have been part of campus lore at least since the late 1970s, and current students may not realise their professors were hearing the very same tales when they themselves were undergraduates. Some tales involve a misdesigned athletic facility for which the weight of the water in the swimming pool wasn’t factored in; others deal with a residence hall which is sinking because its builder forgot to allow for the weight of the inhabitants and their possessions.

By far the most common form the legend takes, however, is that of the sinking library.

Though a few libraries have experienced settling problems, none of them was the result of an addle-brained architect who left out the key calculation regarding the weight of the library’s holdings.

By the by I also remember the myth that there was a swimming pool on the roof of the Glasgow College of Building and Printing (which more recently appeared as an April fool in a newspaper). One other rumour, never substantiated of course, was that a Students’ Union had purchased a decommissioned Royal Navy submarine which it intended to moor on the Clyde and use as a nightclub. I fear I was rather gullible at that time.

Does your university have a library that everyone thinks is sinking? Or have you been taken in by this or any other higher ed myth yourself?

11 responses to “Is the university library really sinking?

  1. The story heard by students at Cambridge, since the 1970s or maybe earlier, was that the building of the University library tower had to be restarted because the weight of the books had been forgotten.

    1. I heard the 50m swimming pool in the University of Bath can’t be referred to as “Olympic” because they dug a 50m hole, but forgot to account for the width of tiles, making it approx. 49.95m length…

  2. Was certainly what i heard when I studied at University of Edinburgh in the 80s/90s and I believed it till today.

  3. Next, you’ll be telling us that the UEA library was never at risk of being undermined by rabbits!

  4. A couple of similar rumours/myths/maybe trues from the University of Southampton… the Lancaster Building (Engineering) has a fine cantilevered large lecture theatre that juts out over the road. The rumour was that two support pillars had to be added as the architect had not taken account of the weight of the students. But less mythic is the 1960s Faraday Tower (also Engineering) just down the hill, which has about twelve floors entirely supported by a central sevice tower (lifts, stairs etc). All of the floors (labs, offices and lecture theatres) were emptied – including heavy electrical engineering lab equipment – when the building was due a major refurb. The gossip was that when the original plans were consulted, the strength calculations were found to be out by a factor of two – whoops. Whatever the truth of that, the fact is that the building was never occupied again and just earns income as a huge mobile phone mast.

  5. The story went that the rooms in the Oak House residences at the University of Manchester were found to be slightly less than the minimum dimensions required by planning regs. The problem was solved by removing the plaster from the walls of every bedroom. (Or maybe it’s just that someone thought that painted breeze-block walls gave just the right level of “it’s grim up north”-ness).

  6. As an UG back in around 2000 at the University of Birmingham, we were told that the 1980s multi-storey car park with a basketball court at the top was supposed to have been a swimming pool at the top but the architects hadn’t factored in the weight of the water. Recently it was demolished and the land used to build an actual 50m swimming pool and fitness centre. Having read Glynis’ comment above, let’s hope they account for the width of the tiles!

    The other rumour was that the Muirhead Tower was build the wrong way around, creating a wind ‘tunnel’, thus causing the windows to fall out and therefore we were never allowed to open the windows. There were signs up saying ‘Danger of falling glass’ and eventually they put a cordoned off zone around it, so maybe this rumour had more truth in it than the car park / swimming pool one.

    1. I used to work in B Block of the Aston Webb Building at Bham from 2000-2002 and one of our windows fell out once and damaged the car of one of my collegues. I also remember that colleagues who worked in Muirhead would have to lock their desk drawers before leaving work to stop them opening up overnight!

  7. The Glasgow library rumours were still doing the rounds when I was a student there in 1999 and again in 2010, but the story has evolved over the years. When I heard it, the rumour was that the lift shaft is taller than the rest of the building because they built it first, then calculated the weight of the books and concluded that they would have to knock a couple of storeys off the design.

  8. I think our uni does genuinely believe the library is sinking under the weight of books… financially, at least.

    On the other hand, a local halls building (privately-owned) genuinely is sinking on one side, to the tune of three or four inches – as a result the windows on one side of the building don’t open, which is bloody unbearable in summer.

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