Bathroom Reading

The main branch of the Phoenix Public Library was recently forced to rid its collection of more than 2,000 books--all of them dirty.

But before hollering "censorship," gentle reader, be advised that the villain of this particular piece isn't a cultural bluenose.

The real culprit? The unknown vandal who's believed to have clogged the plumbing of a second-floor rest room earlier this month, destroying tens of thousands of dollars' worth of books.

"We had a leak," says Rosemary Nelson, library administrator at the Burton Barr branch on Central.

What kind of a leak, no one immediately realized. It wasn't until March 8--the day after workers in the first-floor sorting area noticed the ceiling was leaking--that a library safety analyst discovered the liquid dripping into the room wasn't water. Instead, it was sewage flowing from a broken pipe seal in an upstairs men's room. Further damage occurred when plumbers snaked the pipes, sending more sewer water into the sorting room.

"As soon as we figured out what was happening, we took all kinds of precautions to protect the staff," says Nelson. Those precautions included gloves for everyone "picking up any materials that had been touched by this stuff." (All of the fetid discards had to be catalogued by hand.) Erring on the side of safety, the library pitched any book that had been anywhere near the area where leakage occurred.

Most of the books affected were recent returns and new titles waiting to be shelved. (No videotapes were harmed because they were protected by plastic boxes.) Although Nelson reports that the lost books and physical damage to the library will be covered by insurance, she explains it's still too early to place an exact damage figure on the incident or to know how many of the discards were irreplaceable.

Although Nelson declines to discuss the exact nature of this vandalism, she says items such as tee shirts have been retrieved from library plumbing in the past.

Now, plumbing in the overhead rest room has already been shored up to avoid a similar problem in the future. Says Nelson, "What happened was pretty major. It was truly a disaster."

But for several diehard bibliophiles, this unsavory chapter in the library's history was the greatest thing since the long-defunct library-fine amnesty program: According to one insider, a handful of strong-stomached staffers were later seen gamely scouring the discard bins for tomes that were only slightly tainted.

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: [email protected]

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Dewey Webb