Moldy books in Columbia cavern leave large price tag for MU Libraries

Friday, January 31, 2014 | 5:20 p.m. CST; updated 6:51 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 2, 2014
Mold creeps through the binding of MU-owned books located in Subtera, an underground, off-site storage facility. All 600,000 volumes stored in the limestone cavern must be treated or destroyed and represent 20 percent of the MU Libraries collection.

COLUMBIA — Limestone walls 24 feet high encase the underground cavern holding 600,000 molded books and journals belonging to MU Libraries. That's 20 percent of MU Libraries' total collection.

Water collection pans and drainage gutters stretch across the ceiling of the cavern owned by Subtera underground warehousing. A large industrial dehumidifier attempts to control relative humidity levels, but it’s been known to reach 70 percent humidity in the caverns during the summer. 


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These descriptions and more are included in a Jan. 21 letter Scott Campbell, industrial hygienist for MU Environmental Health and Safety, wrote to MU librarian June DeWeese summarizing his visit to analyze the mold at the storage site last November.

The more than half a million books and journals stored in the northern Columbia cavern fell victim to high humidity. The resulting mold damage is not covered by insurance nor is the storage company financially liable for it, according to a contract between the company and the University of Missouri System.

The mold was first discovered at the MU Libraries off-site storage facility in October. Campbell’s tests determined the common molds of Penicillium and Aspergillus, which do not pose a serious health threat, to be the most prevalent.

"The exposed parts of most books are covered with a mixture of mold spores, mold growth and mineral salt dust," Campbell wrote. "Based on my visual inspection, I recommend handling all books as if they are contaminated with mold."

Now the volumes must be treated or destroyed to ensure that contamination cannot spread to other collections, Director of MU Libraries Jim Cogswell said. Time and funding allow for 300,000 to be saved before heat warms the caverns, which are not climate controlled, toward the end of June.

Any books or journals published before 1870 will be salvaged, Cogswell said, as they are less likely to be held by other universities. The oldest volumes date from 1740 to 1760.

Four requests for comment from Subtera, a part of Con-Agg of MO, LLC Cos., were declined.

Without an insurance policy that covers this type of disaster, MU Libraries is emptying its self-insurance fund, which holds $700,000, compared to the $1.8 million needed to save the whole collection, Cogswell said.   

"This is the first time we’ve had a disaster this large," he said. "It’s devastating."

The choice behind the cavern 

Noah Heringman, an MU English professor, was on the university’s library committee when the decision was made to use the Subtera cavern as storage in 2006. There are several caverns, but MU uses only one.

A lack of space led MU Libraries to expand in 1997 to an above-ground depository on LeMone Industrial Boulevard. The depository was out of space by 2005, Heringman said.

The depository on LeMone showed no sign of mold infection, according to Campbell's report. 

Heringman joined the library committee in 2005. He said Cogswell was planning to propose a bond issue that year to finance the construction of a second depository module, right next to the original one on LeMone, at a price tag of $4 million.

But Cogswell’s proposal was blocked at the UM System level, Heringman said, and the choice to lease storage space at Subtera was made. 

"This misguided decision by the UM System to privilege short-term savings has caused long-term damages, far exceeding the value of the savings," Heringman said. "The strength of our physical collection is a main reason why MU is included in the Association of Research Libraries. It is a devastating blow to the university and the library system."

Signed in September 2006, the 28,000-square-foot storage space cost MU Libraries $140,000 a year, according to a copy of the contract obtained by the Missourian. The contract was signed between UM, on behalf of MU Libraries, and Underground Records Management, LLC, a Missouri company affiliated with Subtera.

The lease was extended to run from February 2010 to January 2012 for $133,000 a year, and extended again for an additional five years, starting in February 2012, for $140,000 a year, according to a copy of the lease agreement.

In total, MU Libraries has paid about $966,000 for the storage space since 2006.

"The MU Libraries rented the space from Subtera to warehouse books, and we tried to maintain those books to the best of our abilities with a limited budget," Shannon Cary, communications officer for MU Libraries, said in an email.

It was always the preference of MU Libraries to put the books into a similar space as the LeMone location, Cary said, but it did not have the budget to do so.

"This disaster is a direct result of underfunding," said Kerby Miller, a curator's professor in the Department of History. "As more library funds were slashed over the years, MU was forced to store books in cheap, unsafe conditions where they would rot and mold away."

Greenhouse effect

You need two things for mold to happen, said Nick Fortner, who owns a mold inspection company in Grain Valley, east of Kansas City.

"A food source — that’s the books — and then moisture at anything over 50 percent humidity," Fortner said. "That's what we call a greenhouse effect for mold." 

The contract signed between UM and Underground Records Management makes it clear Subtera is not responsible in any way for the damage; it states that the company has no obligation to insure loss of any stored materials.

The UM System also is not responsible to pay for the damage, UM Chief Communications Officer John Fougere said in an email, because mold is generally excluded on property programs unless it is the result of damage that is covered, such as wind or fire.

The responsibility falls to MU Libraries, Cogswell said, because the insurance policy is like renting an apartment. The books are the apartment, and MU Libraries the renter.

"If there’s a fire in the apartment, then the damages are on you," Cogswell said. "It is a different level of production. The more general university insurance policy on property does not cover this."

Cogswell said MU Libraries is in the process of hiring a remediation firm to handle the recovery process. He said it is a monumental task, and there is no firm estimate of how much time it will take to sort through the books and select which half to save.

MU Libraries will then transfer as many restored books as possible to other UM facilities, Cary said.

"There is room for about 200,000 volumes at our (UM Libraries Depository) on LeMone Industrial Boulevard," Cary said. "The other UM campus library directors are being very cooperative in allowing us to use the primary available space for these materials."

Community members and faculty and staff have spoken out about offering donations to help save more books than just the 300,000, Cogswell said. 

"We will be setting up a fund where people can contribute to save these materials and others," he said.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

Summary of mold analysis

In a Jan. 21 letter to MU librarian June DeWeese, Scott Campbell, industrial hygienist for MU Environmental Health and Safety, summarized his visit to analyze the mold at the underground storage site last November.

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Ellis Smith February 1, 2014 | 7:07 a.m.

So now it has gone from 300,000 (first Missourian article) to 600,000. Will it go still higher?

My comment is the same as before: if MU can't take care of their books (in storage) maybe they need to have less future funding to buy books. Other campuses in UM System could and would make good use of that funding.

(Report Comment)
Elizabeth Brixey February 1, 2014 | 11:42 a.m.

Mr. Smith,

Hello. I am Elizabeth Brixey, the editor on this and the earlier story. I wanted to clarify that it was always 600,000 books. Here are the first two paragraphs of the first story you mentioned:

"About 300,000 volumes belonging to MU Libraries will have to be eliminated because of mold contamination, according to a letter emailed to MU faculty and staff on Friday afternoon by Director of Libraries Jim Cogswell.

"In October, MU Libraries staff discovered mold growth on about 600,000 volumes in an off-campus library storage facility north of Interstate 70, Cogswell wrote. The volumes must be treated or be destroyed to ensure that contamination cannot spread to other collections."

Thanks, as ever, for taking the time to comment.


Elizabeth Brixey

(Report Comment)

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