Mellon Comes to the Rescue of Missouri’s Moldy Books

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Mold-afflicted library books at the U. of Missouri. (U. of Missouri Libraries photo)

This past January, Jim Cogswell, director of libraries at the University of Missouri at Columbia, got news no library administrator wants to hear: Mold had invaded a rented remote-storage facility that housed some 600,000 of the university’s books.

It wasn’t a happy time.

Then came an email from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation expressing sympathy and offering to help. “I practically shouted out loud,” Mr. Cogswell said. “It was the first time in so long that we’d had anything that approached good news.”

Mellon’s offer has now taken the form of a $400,000 grant that Missouri’s library will use to restore or replace the materials affected by the mold. The library announced the grant in a blog post this week.

Because of the grant, “we will be able to salvage the greater majority of those 600,000 books,” Mr. Cogswell said in an interview. “We thought we would have resources to do maybe half of them.” (Money from the library’s self-insurance fund will also subsidize the effort.)

The library has hired an outside contractor to decontaminate the books, which will be rehoused in “a clean, above-ground storage facility,” he said. Some books may be scanned and printed out, if necessary, but “it’s not as if we’re going to digitize all these volumes and then send them to landfills.”

But some other materials, especially federal- and state-government documents, may be impossible to salvage. That’s a particular worry because Missouri serves as a regional repository of federal documents, “so we are obliged to retain and make available public copies,” Mr. Cogswell said.

To deal with that problem, the Missouri library plans to use some of the Mellon money to support a partnership with two other institutions in the state, Washington University in St. Louis and Missouri State University. The idea is to better catalog the three institutions’ document collections and produce replacement copies of specific items, or get them to patrons through interlibrary loan.

“Everybody in the state wants to know who’s got these collections of documents,” Mr. Cogswell said.

That collaborative impulse helps explain Mellon’s interest in helping out. The foundation rarely provides financial assistance for disaster relief, according to Donald J. Waters, the program officer who oversees its scholarly-communications program.

It stepped in this time because it wanted “to encourage the imaginative, collaborative approach that the University of Missouri took to create partnerships with other institutions, not just to ensure physical access to lost materials for UM faculty and students but also to use the opportunity to improve the cataloging of those materials,” Mr. Waters said by email. “This approach is in keeping with Mellon’s broader support for library efforts to build and improve a national ‘collective collection.’”

Ridding 600,000 books of mold is no small task. Getting three universities to work in sync won’t be a breeze either. “We are testing the extent of how we want to be collaborative and cooperative,” Mr. Cogswell said. “How much can we do, how do we gear up to do it, and what are your institutional priorities?”

Thanks to the grant, “we’re not asking somebody else to give up their time and treasure to help us out,” he said. “I hope it’s going to demonstrate that if the will is there, the funding may be there.”

A successful collective response to the mold outbreak could help other libraries. “We’ll learn about the efficacy of sharing collections” physically and digitally, Mr. Cogswell said. Mold or some other environmental disaster can strike anywhere. “There’ll be a fire, there’ll be an earthquake, there’ll be a flood,” he said. “There will be something like this that will result in catastrophic loss of one sort or another. That’s unavoidable, as I see it.”

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