Libraries and the Weight of Index Cards

Paul Collins has an interesting article in New Scientist about the Mundaneum, a mid-twentieth century effort to create a vast, interlinked archive, like a "proto-internet," using index cards. But what caught my eye was the first paragraph:

UNLIKELY as it sounds now, the hottest thing in information technology was once the index card. In the US, for instance, the War Department struggled with mountains of medical files until the newfangled method of card filing was adopted in 1887. Soon hundreds of clerks were transcribing personnel records dating back to the War of Independence. Housed in Ford's Theatre in Washington DC - the scene of Abraham Lincoln's assassination a generation earlier - the initiative succeeded a little too well. Six years into the project, the combined weight of 30 million index cards led to information overload: three floors of the theatre collapsed, crushing 22 clerks to death.

It's like the old urban legend about a library sinking because the engineers forgot to include the weight of the books in their calculations. Though I'm not sure that the weight of the index cards was the cause of the collapse of Ford's Theater. The wikipedia article about the Ford's Theater disaster (I was surprised to discover there is a wikipedia article about such a now obscure event), notes that workmen had removed part of the theater's foundation and had failed to shore up the building above it. Thus, it came crashing down.

So the Ford's Theater disaster may not be a real-life example of the sinking-library urban legend. But I'm sure there's an example somewhere of a library that collapsed because of the weight of its books.

Urban Legends

Posted on Wed Apr 09, 2008


Paper is heavy. Believe me, I know... I'm the proud owner/collector of 4000 comic books, kept in 20 (twenty) totes, each of 30 (thirty) gallons volume. Each full tote weighs about 60 lbs, for a grand approximate total of 1200 (twelve hundred) pounds. While that's not a great deal of weight, all things are relative. If my crappy old farmhouse was much older (or crappier) I would have a serious concern about the weight making the floor sag.
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Wed Apr 09, 2008  at  01:10 AM
I know that the local university has a (relatively) new wing, wherein the floors bow upwards by about six inches when unladen, to accommodate the weight of books.
Posted by Robin Bobcat  in  Californian Wierdo  on  Wed Apr 09, 2008  at  03:37 AM
Sinking libraries are no urban legend. The local library for the community I grew up in just moved to a new and expensive building because the previous (opened in 1971) building was slowly sinking into the ground it was built on. There was a clearly visible crack across the middle of the floor from one end of the building to the other, and even up the one wall. The building was cracking in half as well as sinking into the disused mine below.

The problem was indeed traced back to an engineer's miscalculation. Whether the miscalculation was the weight of the books or the stability of the old mine underneath, I do not know; but I think it was probably the latter. The building still stands, but the large collection within has recently been moved to the new (theoretically) more stable location.
Posted by Crazy Ivan  on  Wed Apr 09, 2008  at  09:03 AM
Ivan, maybe the library was built on top of an abandoned Native American graveyard...or is that just the plot for a Steven King novel?
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Wed Apr 09, 2008  at  06:56 PM
I suppose we could make it more fun by claiming the mine below is haunted by the ghost of miners crushed in a cave-in. As far as I know, it's not true... but as far as I know it's not false!
Posted by Crazy Ivan  on  Thu Apr 10, 2008  at  07:52 AM
...My library system doesn't use index cards anymore. Haven't for at least the last 10 years. They do still have lots of books, though. None here have ever sunk...and we are a state full of sink holes.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Thu Apr 10, 2008  at  01:25 PM
The cards in card catalogs are presumably about as heavy as a similar volume of books. Libraries rarely (never?) collapse due to the weight of their collections, though. Problems due to floods, fires, roofs caving in, and so on are much more common library ills.

I did have a neighbor, though, who had to get his home's floors specially reinforced because they were sagging due to the weight of all his books (he was a history professor). The house was roughly 100 years old and had a pier-and-beam foundation that wasn't all that sturdy when it was brand new.

So, what I want to know is, if library buildings sank under the weight of card catalogs, when most libraries got rid of their card catalogs about 10-20 years ago, did the buildings suddenly float upward?
Posted by Big Gary  in  Bronte, Texas  on  Thu Apr 10, 2008  at  02:18 PM
People often ask if the weight of the water in my aquariums (I have about 35 of them) will make my floor cave in. So far, I haven't had any problems of that sort. The floor in any decent building can hold up, at a minimum, all your furniture and all your friends when you're having a party. A large tank of water weighs no more than a group of people standing close together.
Posted by Big Gary  in  Bronte, Texas  on  Thu Apr 10, 2008  at  02:21 PM
Oooh, math. Time to do some Jethro-like cypherin'... Assuming that Big Gary's aquariums are average size of 10 gallons, that makes the approximate weight of each 10 gallon aquarium as 87.5 lbs, arrived at by multiplying the per-gallon weight of water (approx. 8.75 lbs./gal) x 10 gallons. Multiply that individual tank weight of 87.5 lbs by the total number of tanks (35), and we arrive at a total weight of the water alone to be: 3062.5 lbs. Now, this does not take into account tank gravel, pumps, filters/ lights, and goofy treasure chests and the like that fish dig. Big Gary also mentioned Large Tanks, so I think it's safe to consider that some of his tanks are indeed larger than 10 gals... Dunno bout you folks, but that's like parking a small car in your house.. even spread out, it gets weighty when added to other home furnishings... You must have a nice, sturdy crib, Big G. OH, BTW, you know that angelfish that dissapeared from one of your tanks some time back? Well, bad news... it jumped out of the tank (they do that) and is now lying dried and dessicated under the dresser. Sorry
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Thu Apr 10, 2008  at  04:32 PM
Hairy, it wasn't an angelfish, it was a Central American Firemouth Cichlid.
Posted by Big Gary  in  Aquarena Springs, Texas  on  Fri Apr 11, 2008  at  03:07 PM
Of course it's a Central American Firemouth Cichlid. That's what I meant. Really. Sorry, I have to go have dinner with my wife, Morgan Fairchild. Yeah, that's the ticket
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Fri Apr 11, 2008  at  03:26 PM
this thing about libraries collapsing first happened at the library of alexandria, because they had too many 'books on clay'. during the first rainy season after completion, the janitor left a window open and the clay absorbed so much rainwater the entire building pancaked. watch for this episode on history's detectives.
Posted by dave w  in  fairfax california  on  Sat Apr 12, 2008  at  11:17 PM
Okay, one more the joke before Raoul has to warm the oil. What is the smallest book in the world? Okay, here is the answer, okay? "Great Military Victories of The Library Books"... Oh, ow, I am popping some stitches now. Raoul first told that joke at the UN many the years ago, when I was recently arrived from The Land Of My Birth. It was very funny to see the delegates blow the milk from the noses. And Raoul! Hah ha ha, you fell for this one more, how can you not know how this goes, it is so easy for Raoul. Get waking up and smell some, okay? Rrrraoul
Posted by Raoul  on  Sun Apr 13, 2008  at  08:07 PM
The university library at Syracuse was engineered to hold the books, but not the people. They didn't include all that body heat in the HVAC capacity calculations, and because it was supposed to be automated, it was always the wrong temperature. But that's another story.
Posted by loren  in  upper midwest  on  Mon Apr 14, 2008  at  03:10 PM
I know it is true because the library at the University of Calgary is slowly sinking into the mud excaim
Posted by Travis  in  Alberta  on  Wed Apr 16, 2008  at  12:46 AM
Now come on: the urban legend when I was at the U of C was that the Earth Sciences building was sinking, not the library. Although the library had one empty floor "because they didn't calculate the weight of the books" (in reality, that's where the physical plant is).

As for the Ford's disaster having a Wikipedia page, that's no surprise: it didn't involve women or anything more popular with women than men, so of course it hasn't been deleted. Popular with women = non-notable on Wikipedia, every time.
Posted by Charlene  in  Calgary  on  Thu Apr 17, 2008  at  09:45 PM
Not sure if it's an urban myth, but I was certainly told when I joined the University of York that the University's Central Hall, placed on the edge of the campus lake, was originally designed as a library. Due to a miscalculation regarding the weight of books, it couldn't be used as a library without sinking, and was instead used as the Student Union's venue - until some famous band played it and it became so packed with students that it started to sink under the weight of human beings.
Posted by Paul  in  York, UK  on  Fri Feb 25, 2011  at  09:00 AM
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