ASSOCIATES (vol. 2, no. 1, July 1995) -

Table of Contents

                        THIS OLD LIBRARY


                            Jey Wann
                      Oregon State Library
                     State Library Building
                         Salem, Oregon

When I first got out of college, riding the tail end of the baby
boom, I had not yet decided what I wanted to do when I grew up.
So I interviewed for a lot of jobs, many in state government,
figuring I'd work for awhile, then figure out what to do with my
major in music and communications.  I went to lots of government
buildings, some forbidding, some old and uncomfortable, none that
I liked.  Until I walked into the State Library.  It had dignity.
The lobby was darkish and quiet.  The elevator was wood paneled,
with a brass handrail and brass doors.  I felt comfortable.

And I got the job.  To my continuing surprise, I'm still here, in
this quietly dignified building, and I still like it.  But over
the years, I've learned that there are some definite challenges
in working in an older building.

The Oregon State Library Building was built in 1939 for the huge
sum of $875,730, including some of the furnishings.  The outside
is white Georgia marble and bronze.  The public areas include art
work with Oregon or library themes:  in the lobby, a plaque of a
pioneer mother reading to her child; in the Reference Room,
stencils of the marks of important early publishers and carved
wood panels of Oregon's state bird and plant; and in the second
floor hall, cast bronze medallions of Oregon subjects.

One of the main joys of this older building is that it was built
before central air conditioning.  On warm spring and fall days we
can open our windows wide and enjoy the breezes, the sound of the
fountain outside, the sound of protesters across the street at
the Capital.  Bugs do fly in, and even the occasional bird, but
it keeps us from being isolated from the big world.

The windows themselves, however, can be a challenge.  Most
offices have tall casement windows that open outward; they have
an arm that braces them and is secured with a wing nut.  Getting
them open usually isn't too hard.  Getting them closed again can
be, especially on a hot day when the metal frames have expanded.
Strong winds can pose a problem, too.  I remember fearing that
one short co-worker was going to be pulled outside as she tried
to close a big casement during a storm.

There is a downside to this non-airconditioner business.  Heat.
The Willamette Valley is definitely a temperate climate, but it
does get hot in the summer.  So we have little air conditioners
in the windows in most offices.  They make a horrible noise, but
they do cool the place down, which is a relief, especially on
those 100 degree + days.

Air conditioners take electricity.  So do lots of things that we
now use, but that hadn't been thought of when this old building
was built.  Consequently, sometimes you have to make choices. In
the shipping room, for instance, in some years they can't use
both the air conditioner and the postage meter at the same time.

Several years ago, I worked in a small office that was
inadequately wired for the number of people and machines in it.
We couldn't have the air conditioner on at the same time as all
the typewriters, or we'd blow the circuit breaker.  Our business
manager (who has since retired) came up with a clever solution:
the office next door was empty.  We'd run an extension cord from
there, out the window, into our office, plug the air conditioner
into it, and presto!  more juice.  That was the idea, anyway.
So, about noon on an August day that promised to be well over
100, I knelt on the window-sill of our office and leaned out the
window while a co-worker held my ankles and the business manager
swung an extension cord at me from the window next door.  I
really did try, but I never caught it, so we just had to ration
our typewriter time.  I've wondered, though, if there was any
body outside watching.

And speaking of window sills...the Technical Services offices
are, and evidently always have been, pretty much plain vanilla.
None of the fancy wood-work or medallions for those of us behind
the scenes.  But our window sills are black marble.  And one of
these days I'm going to see if I really can fry an egg on one
when it's hot and sunny outside.

Another common aspect of older buildings is the height of the
ceilings.  Most of the offices have ceilings higher than you'd
find in a modern building.  But the Reference Room is a full,
majestic two stories tall.  It's a handsome room, although it can
be invigorating in the winter, when the heat's up by the ceiling,
not down by our feet.  But its greatest claim to fame was the
problem with the acoustic tiles.

Not long after I began working here, one of the acoustic tiles
fell from the ceiling.  Evidently, only one other tile had fallen
within living memory.  These were not your average, small, fairly
light tiles, but much bigger, heavier items.  Fortunately, no one
was hit either time.

The maintenance people evidently didn't take the safety threat
seriously, but the state librarian did.  Her solution was to
declare the Reference Room a hazardous area, so that no one could
enter without wearing a hard hat.  The most heavily used ready
reference works were moved out of the room, and any staff who
ventured in to use any other books donned protective head gear.
Naturally, we got a good deal of publicity, and it didn't take
long for the maintenance folks to remove _all_ the acoustic

A continuing problem in old buildings is that they're generally
not up to current codes, and ours is no exception.  There have
been a number of modifications to bring us up to various current
codes, but the most interesting, and most disruptive, has to have
been The New Stairway.

Evidently, some building code or other specifies how many
stairways buildings have to have, and ours didn't have enough.
So they built a new one.  I had never really thought about what
has to happen before a new stairway can go into a building, but I
soon found out.  First, somebody has to cut a hole in the floor.
The hole went between the Acquisitions and Cataloging rooms, also
temporarily taking out a wall.  It was a little bit weird to be
able to see into Cataloging from my desk.  It was _very_ to be
able to see into Reference staff offices through the hole in the

Except for the actual hole-cutting, which happened on a weekend,
everything else involving building the new stairway took place
during regular business hours.  Sawing, sheetrock, welding,
concrete pumping, and spray painting were just some of the
activities that took place around us while we were trying to
work.  The noise was sometimes quite incredible.  One co-worker
took to sitting at her desk shouting "Shut up!" at the top of her
lungs, secure in the knowledge that nobody could hear her, but
she felt better.  Some days, we'd come back from lunch to
discover that we literally couldn't get to our desks.

This whole process didn't smell too good, either.  The worst
offender was something they used on woodwork.  The people putting
it on had been warned not to work with it for more than 15
minutes at a time, but nobody thought to warn anyone else.  It
was summer, so we had our big windows open, but that didn't
prevent 2 people from being overcome with fumes, and my assistant
and I suddenly finding the annual serials renewal outrageously

Eventually, the new stairway was completed.  I quickly came to
take it for granted, and use it many times a day.  But because I
was there when it was built, I know that it contains a message
for future renovators (or perhaps archaeologists): all of the
Technical Services staff signed the sheetrock; one (given to
flamboyant lipstick) kissed it.

It would be hard to top the stairway for sheer disruption of
work, but a few summers ago, the Great Building Cleaning came
close.  I had watched other marble buildings on the capital mall
as they were cleaned.  It had never occurred to me that marble
would get dirty, but of course it does, and the buildings that
were cleaned were much brighter & shinier than ours.  Then it was
our turn.

Part of the washing procedure involved the cleaners setting
frames that sprayed water and a mild cleaning solution around the
outside of the windows.  They hit the east window in the
Acquisitions room on a morning when I was the only one there, and
had a meeting for a couple of hours.  Since I knew that the
window didn't close as tightly as it should, I asked someone in
Cataloging if she could check on it occasionally, just in case a
little water seeped in.

When I came back from my meeting, I discovered a waterfall
flowing splashily onto the window sill, which was covered in
drenched rags.  My cataloging co-worker had been running the rags
to the sink, wringing them out, and replacing them about once
every 20 minutes while I was gone!  We worked out a better
system, which included an artistic array of old vases and bowls
to collect water, and were truly glad when the cleaners were done
with the window.

Of course, the bronze parts of the building had to be protected
from the marble cleaning solution.  To do that, the cleaners hung
plastic over the bronze features, which at times gave the
building a shrink-wrapped look.  It didn't have a great impact on
me until I left a bit later than usual one night, and discovered
that all three front doors had been shrink-wrapped shut.

Marble cleaning also involved a lot of sanding and scraping,
which produced clouds of scratchy dust that filtered into the
building.  It was a time of true grit on everything, including
our easily-scratched computer screens.  But at least one person
suggested that the lime-based dust might neutralize the acidity
in the paper of some of the older books.

I suppose the description of no building is complete without
mentioning the restrooms.  Ours, of course, do not comply
completely with the Americans With Disabilities Act, although
they are slowly being brought up to speed.  Long before the ADA,
one of the first attempts to make the restrooms wheelchair
friendly involved replacing some of the stall doors with
nearly-transparent shower curtains.  And the combination of
a stacks roof that's one floor lower than the third floor..and
windows that open...has led to a somewhat disconcerting
experience: I'm not the only female staffer who's been surprised
by a workman coming through the window of the third floor women's
rest room.  Just makes you want to burst out into that old
Beatles song (except that staying quietly in the stall seemed
much safer).

For years, we have been promised (or threatened with, depending
on your point of view) renovation.  One plan even called for an
entirely new building.  We've been skeptical about these plans,
which seemed to come to fruition about as quickly as Godot
arrived, but now it looks as though it's really going to happen.
If the renovation moves along as planned, in a few years, this
will be a seismically safe, ADA-compliant building with heating
and air conditioning that provides the best environment for books
and people.  And the historic features will be preserved.

I'm sentimental about inanimate objects, buildings included.
This old library has been fulfilling its missions with quiet
dignity for over 55 years.  I'm happy to think that, with a
little help from its friends, it may continue to do so for
another 55.


_Oregon Blue Book 1989-1990_.  Oregon Secretary of State.  Salem,
OR.  1989.