The Great Jane Addams Library Flood

I’ve written about my years as head librarian at Jane Addams,  a New York City public vocational high school. (See Magazines for the Principal and  The Diary of a Young Girl)

Here’s another story.

Because of our large student body for many years our school had two sessions and all students and faculty were either early or late.   It happened I was on late session the year of the great Jane Addams library flood.

That fateful morning as I parked in the teachers’ lot I thought it strange that no students were in front of the school or on the steps waiting for the late session bell.  For a minute I thought I may have made a mistake – as I once did! –  and had gotten up and headed for work forgetting it was a Saturday.  But there were other cars in the parking lot and so surely it was a school day.

And then I saw Eileen, my principal,  standing at the front door.  “I was waiting for you to break some bad news.”  she said,  “Overnight something triggered the sprinkler system in the basement and I’m afraid your library is flooded.  We had to evacuate the building and a cleaning crew is already down there.”

Our school had recently undergone an extensive renovation and the library had been relocated to a larger space in the refurbished basement where there were also several new classrooms and offices.  Eileen walked me downstairs to see the extent of the damage,  and that day and for many days to follow I felt I was in shock.

Then while the cleaning crew sent by the Dept of Ed did their work,  my library colleague Merlene and I had an enormous task of our own.  We had to check every one of the thousands of books for even the slightest bit of mold.  Because mold can be a health hazard for some,  all the wet,  smelly,  and moldy books had to be discarded,  and thus probably two-thirds of our collection had to go.

I applied for a grant to replace what was lost,  the new books arrived,  and eventually the library looked and functioned normally once again.

But for quite some time I had nightmares about that great Jane Addams library flood,  and I saw myself floating in the sea surrounded by thousands of moldy books!

– Dana Susan Lehrman


  • This post reminds of another library catastrophe- the great Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986 memorialized by Susan Orlean in The Library Book. I guess you have read it! The fire caused millions of gallons of water to be poured on all the books, creating mold, unimagined loss, etc. Memories such as this cannot be erased by time, only softened!

  • This is the librarian’s worst nightmare!

    Although I do remember a colleague who once asked the janitorial staff to clean the library shelves and found the shelves all clean but the books dumped in a huge pile the floor.

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