Shakin’ in the Stacks by
(149 Stories)

Prompted By Libraries

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First let me recognize public libraries, which have been a part of my life ever since I can remember. By age 10 I had “graduated” from the children’s room at the Verona, New Jersey library to all the adult areas, aided by a note from my mother. Today I enjoy the Santa Clara, California city libraries, which are always packed with people from rambunctious toddlers to 90-year-olds: a great use of my tax money.

In an instant, there was a rumble and a slight jerk, and then a slow roll, as I watched the stacks of books opposite me rise about a foot and a half, and gently fall, as if carried by ocean waves.

One of my most interesting memories of a library started just a week or two into my first semester at Mills. It had been just a couple of months since I’d moved to California, and I was thrilled by the scent of eucalyptus trees on campus and the character of the older buildings. At that time, the library (the Margaret Carnegie Library, now an administration building) was a small, but elegant structure. As I studied there one morning, seated at a round oak table, from across the oval in the center of campus I could hear the chimes of El Campanil, the bell tower, every 15 minutes.

The following image doesn’t do the building justice, but gives an idea of what it looked like before other buildings were constructed around it.

In an instant, there was a rumble and a slight jerk, and then a slow roll, as I watched the stacks of books opposite me rise about a foot and a half, and gently fall, as if carried by ocean waves. I looked over at the librarian, Miss Reynolds, and asked her, “Was that an earthquake?” “Oh, yes,” she replied, and calmly went back to what she was doing. Wow, my first earthquake!

After that I learned a lot about earthquakes and the buildings at Mills. Turns out the Hayward Fault, now considered one of the more dangerous in the Bay Area, runs right through the campus, under a lake. Also turns out I was in a safe place, because the library, El Campanil, and several other campus buildings were designed by Julia Morgan, whose structures were well known to be earthquake resistant. These Mills buildings survived the 1906 “big one” and the 1989 Loma Prieta quakes, while the oldest building, Mills Hall, had a lot of damage in 1989.

Although Mills now has a newer, larger, and very beautiful library, I recall the little Julia Morgan building as a memorable introduction to California.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


  1. Suzy says:

    Marian, I love this story about arriving at Mills and being introduced to earthquakes in the library. I knew about Julia Morgan, but not that she had designed several of the buildings at Mills. It makes me want to go visit the campus. Maybe we could meet there some time, it’s probably about halfway between us.

    • Marian says:

      Meeting at Mills would be great, Suzy. It’s a terrific campus. Julia Morgan designed lots of buildings in the East Bay, and her buildings have an excellent reputation as far as surviving earthquakes. Mills has a campus architect (which I think is awesome for such a small school) to advise about the upkeep of all the structures.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Like you, I was a library devotee at an early age, Marian, though I never studied at the Brandeis library. My dorm room was always quiet enough for me to do all my reading and writing in. But what a story – to live through an earth quake! You must have been very frightened.

    We had a Carnegie Library in Edgartown, which has now been replaced by a larger, more modern one, but the Carnegie building is now a visitor center/museum, so a beautiful, welcoming place.

    I have heard of Julia Morgan, as she was Hearst’s architect for San Simeon, and it is always pointed out that it was quite unusual to have a female architect in that era. Obviously, she received many important commissions in her day. The photo of the library looks lovely.

    • Marian says:

      There are lots of Carnegie Libraries, as I’ve learned, Betsy. I guess the family endowed a whole bunch. Funny, in my semester at Brandeis, I don’t remember the library, and like you, I tended to study in my room. Julia Morgan was unusual in being female and in her construction approach to her creations, which is why they have survived earthquakes so much better than other buildings in that era. I was somewhat anxious during that first earthquake but then intrigued and interested in what I saw and felt. Now, the 1989 Loma Prieta quake was truly frightening and literally knocked me off my feet. I guess that’s material for a future story!

  3. Love it Marian, the first library/earthquake story I’ve heard! I know Californians are accustomed to earthquakes, but that Mills librarian was SOOO calm!

    Years ago when I was working as a high school librarian, I arrived one morning to find the principal waiting for me on the school steps with bad news. The janitor had discovered that overnight the library’s sprinkler system had somehow been triggered and for hours water had poured down from the ceiling. Almost the entire collection of 10,000 volumes was unsalvageable.

    Understandably it took weeks to depose of the water-logged books and dry out the library. The only silver lining was that we got a sizable grant to rebuild the collection!

    • Marian says:

      My heart aches at the thought of all those soggy books, Dana. One consolation about earthquakes is that, unless there is a fire, many more books survive. I’ve been through one bad flood (see my story “Fish in the Street, Snakes Under Glass”), and strange as it may seem to those unfamiliar with earthquakes, I’d take an earthquake over a flood any day. As you said, flood cleanup takes weeks!

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Quite a welcome to CA, Marian. It’s a wonder all of those books didn’t tumble onto the floor (or maybe they did). So interesting that many Retrospect writers share a love of books and libraries.

    • Marian says:

      Laurie, would you believe not a book fell? This was also true in the Loma Prieta earthquake, which was many times stronger. I was at home, and even though that quake knocked me over, all our books remained on the shelves. Just depends on the angle of the waves coming through. Other friends and clients had a lot of damage–looked like a polar bear had gone through their homes and opened file cabinets and refrigerators.

  5. What a vivid image! Rock and roll stacks! Can you imagine being buried under books? As a student, I think we all felt that way figuratively, but for real? Whew.

    • Marian says:

      Yeah, any stronger shaking would be too real, Charles. Although earthquakes lend themselves to many jokes about the earth moving, it can be terrifying in a major quake when it literally does.

  6. I’m an old earthquake survivor from way back, Marian :-)! The Northridge quake occurred weeks after we had retrofitted our old house’s foundation, knee walls, and bolted the plate to the foundation. Where the old building used to shimmy and slide, the new ‘improved’ retro work made the house so rigid that it nearly shook us to death. The shock knocked down our chimney and filled the bathroom and living room with piles of bricks. During the Loma Prieta quake, we acted as switchboard operator for our friends and family in San Francisco who could call out, but not call each other. I still have difficulty living with this California reality!

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