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COLUMN: Revival of an urban legend


Some years ago, I read a rather intriguing newspaper story stating a well-known library in our province is slowly sinking. I immediately clipped it for future reference.

Burton K. Janes

According to the account, Memorial University's Queen Elizabeth II Library has fallen heir to a common urban legend. The building is slipping into the very earth on which it is built. A second oddity, albeit less common among popular urban myths, is that the structure was built backward. A third urban legend is that the library houses a ghost haunting the hallowed halls of learning.

According to the first urban legend - the library is slowly sinking - the design engineers neglected to consider the weight of the books the building would hold. As a result, the monstrosity is slowly slipping downward. Indeed, according to this legend, several bookshelves must remain empty in order to avert imminent disaster.

According to the second urban legend - the structure was built backward - the windows facing Columbus Drive were intended to face Elizabeth Avenue. Unfortunately, the building was erected backward, because an ignorant engineer misread the blueprints.

As for the third legend - the library houses a ghost - I simply refuse to go there, for it defies my sense of what is rational and what is not.

The newspaper story was too good to consign to a paper shredder or File 13, so I sent a copy to Jan Harold Brunvand, otherwise known as 'Mr. Urban Legend,' America's premier folk detective.

"Oh, yes," he writes in response to my query, "I have had sinking libraries in my books since (I wrote) 'The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends' in 1993." He thought the newspaper account "was a very nice article about the MUN version of the story."

Incidentally, Brunvand and his wife had a nice time in Corner Brook some time ago ... and that isn't an urban legend.

"Even though I failed to catch a salmon," he emailed me, "we saw amazing wild flowers and scenery."

I pulled Brunvand's book - "The Baby Train and Other Lusty Legends" - from the shelves of my personal library - which, to my knowledge, is not sinking - and checked other references to sinking libraries.

Brunvand has heard this urban legend attached to, among other institutions, the University of Utah library; Yale University in New Haven, Conn.; Colgate University in Hamilton, New York; Robart's Research Library at the University of Toronto; Ontario's University of Waterloo; Northwestern University in Illinois; Brown University's Science and Technology Library in Rhode Island; the new library at the University of California at San Diego.... the list is seemingly endless.

Such stories titillate the reader, making for delightful reading.

Meanwhile, libraries can sink. As Brunvand notes, the Sweetwater Country Library in Wyoming is haunted by the cemetery on which the building was erected.

"When the library was completed, serious structural problems began. Eventually, the library began to sink," he writes in the book.

Back to that sinking feeling at Memorial: former librarian Richard Ellis burst this urban legend bubble. The structure is maintained by columns, he says, which are unaffected by the weight of the books on the shelves. If the building were indeed sinking, it would be easy for all to observe, he adds.

As for the building standing backward, Ellis explains, "The light coming into the main reading room is a north light, which is the preferred light for reading rooms and art galleries, and it's not as hot as south light. It was meant to be built that way for that reason."

I've thought much about how such urban legends as MUN's sinking library arise. I think I now have the answer: My brother, who is married to a girl from Saskatchewan, heard it from a friend of hers related to the wife of a banking official in St. John's. That banker's brother is a student who had a prof whose spouse heard it from the cashier at the bookstore. Sounds like an airtight case to me!

That's exactly how urban legends spread. Obviously, Memorial's library can't escape the world of urban legends.

Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net.

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