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Lost Information: What Happened to the Port Authority Library

Tony Robins, a New York City author and architecture tour guide, recently posed an interesting question on the SLA-NY listserv: could anyone help him ascertain what had happened to the Port Authority Library’s contents, once housed on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, but which had certainly been closed before the buildings were destroyed in September 2001?

A few weeks later, Robins got back to the listserv with his fascinating results. A few dozen librarians had replied to him, either with their own anecdotal evidence, or links to articles that mention the loss of the archives (like this one from Archeology online, in 2002), or with information on who might answer the question more thoroughly. The library, according to his aggregated research, contained over 75,000 volumes and was staffed by three full-time reference librarians. Someone who had worked at the Port Authority Library before it closed described the collection as having “held most of the original blueprints and other materials related to the building of the New York-New Jersey bridges and tunnels, and the [T]rade [C]enter itself.” The Port Authority was formed in 1921 by compact between the two states, and the library’s existence dates back to at least 1928, as evidenced by an article in the November 1928 SLA newsletter (PDF). Robins also heard from another librarian who shared that the Port Authority had been in discussion with a number of area universities and libraries to find homes for the contents of the library, at one point, going so far as to supply a CD with metadata on the library’s holdings. The talks were ongoing during 2001, however, and nothing concrete had been transferred. Robins even got an answer from the Port Authority’s press department, confirming that the library was closed in 1995 due to budgetary restraints and although some of the more valuable material was removed, most of the archives were being stored in a sub-basement of the towers, and thus lost during the 9/11 attacks.

It’s a telling, and slightly chilling, story. On the one hand, the obvious tragedy is that original archives across seventy years were destroyed. But perhaps more subtle is the fact that the library had been out of use for six years and had not been relocated. Of course, the collection most likely contained a vast array of print reference materials for various departments within the Port Authority that, although useful for their patrons, could hardly be called unique. However, I was struck, in reading Robin’s results, that there was acknowledgment from various sources that some of the material was unique and irreplaceable. Their permanent loss was, of course, unforeseeable – but what’s also interesting is the six years they were simply out of use, in a basement. Was this a question of importance or relevance? Who would be served by these documents? Was it a matter of bureaucracy, of space, or of budget, that the unique elements of the collection weren’t transferred somewhere where they could be used?

So often in our coursework at SILS, we hear about LOCKSS – “lots of copies, keep stuff safe”. We hear about the importance of conservation and preservation, and how libraries can and should build consortia so that their patrons can access the breadth of resources from not just one, but many libraries. And in our Government Information Sources class, we learn about the challenges in making government information available and accessible to the people. We are learning that government document librarianship isn’t just about providing service to online materials, because it’s not all online – it’s about recognizing and advocating for the value of your collection, whether print or digital. This story reminded me that not all libraries survive budget cuts (much less catastrophic events), and not all information is infinitely replicated or repeated in digital formats.

– Krissa Corbett Cavouras, Pratt SILS