Library board not to blame for moldy books

By PATTY FURR,

I am writing in response to the editorial in last week’s edition of your newspaper.  The article was not only inaccurate, but it was extremely unfair to the Jackson-Hinds Library System (JHLS). The JHLS Board of Trustees did recently vote to return the Tisdale Library building on Northside Drive back to the City of Jackson, which owns the building, due to the high cost that JHLS has incurred in maintaining it. In this editorial and in several other articles about the flooding of the Tisdale Library, you have blamed the library administration for the loss of the 34,000 books in the building. This is clearly not the case. In the state of Mississippi, all public libraries are excluded from owning library buildings. According to Mississippi Code, 39.3.3:

“Where any public library or public library system is established under this article, either by the county board of supervisors or the governing body of a municipality, the cost of purchasing land, erecting buildings and equipping and maintaining such public library or public library system shall be paid for in whole out of the general funds of the county or municipality.”

There is no legal basis for any public library system to erect, equip or maintain a library building. By law, we must depend on the city of Jackson or Hinds County to provide a safe place for our library books and personnel. The Tisdale Library building, which served 60,000 persons prior to the major flooding event which closed it, had HVAC systems in the basement, which were filled with black mold; we knew it was only a short period of time before the mold spread upstairs to the book collection. JHLS explored the option of leasing a climate-controlled storage facility, which would have cost upwards of $20,000 a month. This was well beyond what the library system could afford. Another option, which was more affordable, was to move the books to Metrocenter Mall. Several visits were made to look at possibilities there but that option was lost when we received word that the mall was being closed.

No less than eight times after the mold infected the building, I appeared before the city council and the Mayor alerting them to the danger of losing the books and asking their help to relocate the books. Each time they failed to act, and eventually the mold did spread to the upstairs space. After your first article denouncing the library administration for allowing the books to mold, Ashby Foote, City Councilman for the ward in which Tisdale is located, gave a television interview and took full responsibility for the city of Jackson’s inaction in moving the books. He clearly stated that it was the city’s fault that the books were lost, and not the library system. After the books were ruined, we priced what the recovery and cleaning of the books might cost, and it was upwards of $50,000. Our very tight budget would not allow us to try and recover them. Since most of the titles were duplicates of the books in our other 14 libraries, which need weeding periodically so that we can fit new books on the shelf, we were confident that we could rebuild the collection from mold-free books from our existing collections. We also receive 150 boxes of books from donations each month, many of which are in pristine condition. We knew that it would make better sense to rebuild the collection through using weeded books and donations, which had no possibility of infecting a new Tisdale Library with mold.  

With reference to the comments about the city of Jackson having to bear the costs of clearing the building, the prospective buyer talked to me when they first approached the city of Jackson to purchase the property. They indicated that they would have no problem taking the building “as is,” and that they had followed a very similar process in cleaning out their existing buildings, which are very close to the library’s location. They are perfectly willing to deal with the situation without the library intervening.

With regard to the responsibility of insuring the building, the city of Jackson has always maintained the insurance coverage on the building, as they own it. The library system had insurance on the contents, but the coverage did not cover the loss of the books and furnishings due to a clause damage from flooding. The city of Jackson is certainly welcome to assume our existing security system and activate it for the few weeks or months that the Tisdale Library is waiting for the sale to conclude.  

As for a homeless person breaking into the library, we have had absolutely no indication that this would happen, and even if someone broke into the space, the inch of fuzzy mold covering every surface would convince anyone that this would be a very poor place to spend any time. The humidity is so high in the building, burning books would also be a very difficult task to achieve.

The bottom line on the Tisdale Library situation is that the Jackson-Hinds Library System’s Board of Trustees felt it was very wasteful for us to continue to spend the very limited amount of library funds to continue to pay for the upkeep of this building, especially since Mayor Lumumba has indicated that an offer on the building has been received and that it would be sold soon.

Since the closure in 2017, the library system has been forced to absorb around $40,000 dollars in costs to maintain the exterior, keep the utilities on and monitor the building. This money has come at the expense of library services, such as the book budget. The board felt it was a true waste of money to maintain the old Tisdale Library when our book budget has been cut five times in the last five years. Just think of how many children’s books that $40,000 could have purchased for the children of Jackson who need them to succeed in school.

I hope that the Northside Sun will make a better effort to cover this story in the future without placing the blame on the library system. We truly could not have prevented the mold in the building, nor could JHLS have recovered or removed the books following the mold contamination.

Patty Furr is executive director of the Jackson Hinds Library System.

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