RICHMOND -- The Virginia State Library and Archives has been indefinitely closed while state technicians grapple with ailments plaguing the massive structure.
The problems are many. Mold, mildew and fungus imperil its priceless collections of books and documents, some of which date to the 18th century. The climate control system is inadequate. Much of the overloaded wiring must be replaced.
And should a blaze erupt in the 48-year-old building, which has no flame control system, people trying to flee would be confronted by a confusing maze of narrow staircases, many of which, one state official said, "go nowhere."
The state General Services Department already has spent about $100,000 to improve the wiring. But state officials generally agree that it would cost millions of dollars to preserve the library, located behind the Capitol.
Some say the building might be beyond repair. "I suspect that the functional life of the building is drawing to a close," said John Molnar, a library expert and coordinator of library planning for the State Council of Higher Education.
"To replace the building would be extremely expensive," Molnar said, yet "renovation would cause a massive disruption of services and collections. It's a tremendous dilemma."
A final decision on whether to go ahead with repairs or seek money for a new structure must await a General Services Department analysis of the building, said state Education Secretary Donald J. Finley, who oversees the library.
The library, which shut its doors Aug. 18 because its electrical system failed, was erected during the Depression by the New Deal Works Progress Administration and cost $1.5 million to build.
Court records dating to the 1700s are stored in its archives, as well as records of state agencies and papers of former governors. About 50,000 people use the library each year, said Ella Gaines Yates, the library's director.
Another problem facing the library is asbestos. The building's structural steel was covered with the mineral as a fireproofing step during construction, said Nathan Broocke, director of engineering and buildings for the General Services Department.
Recent tests have shown minute amounts of the cancer-causing mineral in the library's air, but it would be removed if the structure were renovated, Broocke said.
Fire is a threat to the collections and the staff, state officials say. There is no fire suppression system in the building, because librarians in the 1930s feared that sprinklers could cause water damage to the books and other documents.
Doors in some of the corridors also might block exit routes, Broocke said. The doors can be opened from only one side, and they automatically lock when closed. And in some storage areas, the staff cannot hear fire alarms, Yates said.
At a meeting of the General Assembly's money committees last week, some members questioned state officials about the library's condition and questioned why the legislature had not learned about the problems earlier.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) said the assembly wants officials to explain why the building deteriorated to the point that it had to be shut.
Most of the library's 142 employes now work at other sites. Library operations such as the publication of some state documents and a reference service are continuing to operate, the director said.
A complete report on whether to preserve the building will not be available until midmonth. At that point, officials are to decide on a course of action. A complete rehabilitation could cost as much as $25 million, Broocke said. A new building would cost much more.
State officials say they do not know when the building will reopen, or under what conditions. "An abundance of caution" will be used in making the decision, Finley said.