Saving The Books

If I could have participated in only one flood relief effort in Iowa, this is the one I would have chosen:

June 14, 2008

Heroic story of books


Iowa City, Ia. — In all the statewide stories of heroism, it would be hard to find more passion than in the snaking line going up the steps of the Main Library at the University of Iowa on the banks of the flooding Iowa River.

Hand over hand; all man’s ideas were handed. Philosophy and theatre, science and religion. Books rising from the basement to a higher level.

A student handed to a professor to a fresh-faced child.

This is Iowa City, after all, where thinking and literature are in the very blood, no less important than a homeowner’s prized possession or a building’s boiler.

Taylor Raborn, a graduate student, handed "Atmosphere on Space Cabins and Closed Environments" to the next man and the next, up three stories it traveled.

"I want to make sure the books are out," he said. "I saw Nietzsche and books on Judaism and Islam go by. It makes you want to come back and read them all. Hopefully we will be able to because I love books.

"There are a lot of bibliophiles in this city."

Librarians have been moving books from the basement all week — only copies of manuscripts and theses. But when they heard the news Thursday that the river was going to rise higher than expected, they put out a call for help.

"All of the sudden, ‘whoosh’ all these people showed up," said Nancy Baker, university librarian. "This is where it shows up for people, library books. They are very powerful for people. Many things can be replaced but not some of these books."

Many are out of print, books dating back to the 1800s or older that have been stacked in the basement for generations — called special collections — while so-called "rare" books are already on higher ground.

"We are a research library, the big library in Iowa. We provide the whole state with education and research. Some of these books you can’t just get another copy," Baker said.

As the hour approached quitting time at 5 p.m., when all operations were ordered to halt and volunteers evacuate the building, hands moved faster and faster.

One stack was emptied every 20 minutes.

Psychiatry professor Jim Beeghor said his shift started with Western philosophy, Kant and Spinoza, and he handed off to theater professor Kim Marra, who was glad to see a rescue of old plays from the 18th century, up the stairs, through the hands of joking students — 95 people to the top.

The best guess is more than 100,000 books are moving upward as they raced the clock, realizing some would be left behind.

Another line up a back set of stairs had 115 people, the last book landing on a pile — "Measurement of the Stretch of Muscles" — as the announcement to quit was heard.

It was over. People groaned. They begged to go on.

Hold on. Librarians announced to cheers that they could stay until 9 p.m. to save more books. 

Floodwaters would not steal great thoughts. Not here.



2 thoughts on “Saving The Books

  1. Steph

    It is so wonderful to see that books, and libraries, are still important to people. I hope that is something that never changes. Thanks for sharing this story – I would have joined you on those steps, my love.

  2. Melody

    They showed pictures in the register of this. Along with some of the students helping to sandbag other buildings. It is great what so many people are/were willing to do to preserve literature. May it never stop.