Saving more than just the books


Thanks to public libraries, books are free for anyone with a laminated card. Accessible books are a community service in Iowa so ingrained that envisioning life without them is next to impossible.

But Cedar Rapids has lived without its public library since last June, when floodwaters cut a swath through the city and swamped more than 150,000 of the library’s books in murky sewage.

On Saturday, several writers from the UI will give their time and books to help move the Cedar Rapids Public Library out of its temporary home in the city’s Westdale Mall back to its own building. The authors will converge on Coe College for “Writers & Readers Rebuilt,” a reading and silent auction to raise money for and awareness about the Cedar Rapids library’s losses.

“To see a library destroyed goes right to the heart of a writer,” said Christopher Merrill, the director of the UI International Writing Program, who helped organize the fundraiser. “For people in Cedar Rapids who were accustomed to using Saturday mornings to go to the library, the pleasure has been gone for all of these months. It’s a source of grief that won’t go away.”

For Tamara Glise, the interim director of the Cedar Rapids Public Library, the grieving process began on the morning of June 11, 2008. As the waters continued to rise, she was told to prepare for the library to be flooded.

The warning kick-started almost six hours of frantic activity as the library staff members and their families moved books, computers, and artwork to the second floor. But their preparations for a 26-foot crest were washed away when the water peaked at 31 feet, and the waters reached some of the moved material.

Unable to get into the main doors on June 12, Glise navigated the city’s downtown skywalks and broke in to the second floor on her own.

“When I walked into the second floor, I could hear waves beating against the walls,” she remembered. “I walked to the stairs, and I saw a big red easy chair bobbing from the circulation desk to the Young Adult section.”

Around two weeks later, when Glise was allowed back in — wearing a HAZMAT suit — she found the entire adult collection ruined, along with the furniture and computer systems that ran the building’s operations and branches throughout the city.

“We did some research to find any library disaster as awful as this,” she said. “We found this was the worst public-library disaster in the nation — it’s not exactly a badge of honor we like to wear.”
Residents of the city and people from around the country have held fundraisers and donated money, which Glise estimates amounted to roughly $400,000. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated the Cedar Rapids Public Library lost between $16 million to $20 million, she said adding that the upcoming auction is one of the largest in terms of participation and talent.

“It’s going to be huge,” said Peggy Heysse, a retired teacher from Harding Middle School in Cedar Rapids and a member of the Serendipity Book Club, a group organizing the event. “Such a group of talented people are going to be in one place. I’ve been to author readings at Prairie Lights and other libraries; you’d take one of those and multiply it by eight.”

Heysse said the writers will include former Iowa Poet Laureate Marvin Bell, poets and Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty members James Galvin and Cole Swensen, Writers’ Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang, Workshop faculty member Marilynne Robinson, poet Melissa Schiek, and Robin Schiff, the undergraduate director for creative writing. UI Nonfiction Writing Program Professor John D’Agata and Iowa Review Editor David Hamilton will also read.

“Writers recognize the importance of a library,” Merrill said. “It’s where they get their first taste in books.”

Bell, who was a member of the Writers’ Workshop faculty for 40 years, agreed.

“Libraries, and the nation’s use of them, are crucial to survival and to our souls,” he said. “Mark Twain usually gets credit for saying, ‘The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.’ ”

Heysse said the auction would take place in two parts. The eight writers donated at least 20 works total, which will be available for bidding before the first four readings. During intermission, Heysse snagged Washington High School senior Michael Jarvey to play piano while participants bid again. The final four writers will read afterwards, and attendees will make a final go at bidding.

Hamilton’s book Deep River: A Memoir of a Missouri Farm has a connection to the event because it is set in the floodplain of the Missouri River. Hamilton said he read at the Cedar Rapids Library a few years ago, but that wasn’t the sole reason he got onboard.

“If you had to dispense with either the university library or faculty, I’d give up the faculty,” he said. “Readers have been known to educate themselves.”

Amid the destruction Cedar Rapids, the library’s losses weren’t always at the forefront. Some people simply couldn’t comprehend that a city could sustain so much damage.

“I wasn’t aware of the extent of the damage the library suffered until I was contacted about the benefit,” D’Agata said. “I think I may have blindly wanted to believe that Cedar Rapids’ damage wasn’t as bad as it first seemed. But of course, it really did get slammed, and that reinforces just how utterly lucky most of us have been in Iowa City. Surely, we’ve suffered some awful individual losses, but what we’ve experienced as a community is nothing compared to what’s happened to Cedar Rapids.”

Among many other UI facilities, the Main Library, the Art Library, and the Rita Benton Music Library were damaged by the flood last June. The items in the Main Library Special Collections basement storage were moved upstairs, and 150 workers were evacuated from the building, but the building didn’t sustain irreparable damage, and it reopened July 9, 2008. The Art Library’s collection escaped the flood, but 2,400 books were soaked Feb. 19 by a faulty sprinkler system. The collection of the Benton Music Library, which had been located in Voxman Music Building, was moved to the second and fifth floors of the Main Library in January.

“Libraries are so central to a community, not just because they make books available but because they also sponsor so many other programs and function as a gathering place — a city without a library is an impoverished place,” Swensen said. “National news has captivated our attention, and it’s easy to forget about something when it’s not right in [the headlines.]”

Heysse and the rest of her book club refuse to forget, and they hope to fill the roughly 100 seats in Coe College’s Stewart Memorial Library. The group sent a proposal to Oprah’s Book Club to enlist its support, she said, but never heard back. On the other hand, she said, the writers’ auction is better than she could have expected.

“We’re not the movers and shakers in the community,” Heysse said. “We’re a bunch of retired teachers, but we’re passionate about it, and about libraries, and, of course, books.”

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