Familiar books and faces

We lost 60 per cent of our library stock. Deep shock was the emotion I felt at first. Ironically, I had re-ordered the junior library a couple of days before and now it lay in ruins. The distance the water had flung things was astounding. I felt like I was saying goodbye to old friends. The silt-covered pages had a smell I can recall still and which reminded me of the beach when I went sea-coaling with my brother years ago – a sad, seaweedy smell – although it was from the river, all water mingled that day, senses were heightened. I felt bereft for those who lost their homes – grateful I lived in another town. Guilty to feel that though. The residue on the books and walls was a chocolatey-brown, like cocoa left in the bottom of a cup, splashed slightly up the sides.

The residue on the books and walls was a chocolatey-brown, like cocoa left in the bottom of a cup, splashed slightly up the sides.

The Reference Library was sealed off like a crime scene to protect stock from damp and bacteria – no books could be accessed – the very time a poem may have summed up my feelings, helped with the outpouring of grief.

It was astounding and humbling to note how keenly residents felt the loss of their library. It was very clear, as we opened our makeshift mobile library in the car park by the river, that our customers viewed us as a necessary lifeline to normality. The words ‘cornerstone of the town’ were mentioned many times. Many just came to chat and be amongst familiar books and faces.

The flood was devastating yet brought out hidden depths of strength and community spirit in all affected.
Julie Brown, Library Assistant

Sharing bags of chips

The day after the flood coming in to the library and seeing the wooden furniture and windows smashed in by a recycling bin. Books strewn around inside, furniture from the junior library had been washed into the foyer and to the bottom of the stairs – watermark up to chest height.

Later we had to catalogue what items had been lost. The damaged books had had their wet title page torn out, there were thousands of these sheets, all put into black bin liners and sent to an empty school in Prudhoe where they were stored in the freezer. I remember retrieving these big, heavy bags that felt like carrying the carcass of an animal and taking them to Prudhoe Library for us to sort through. The sheets often bonded together by the water forming pulp that was difficult to separate.

I remember retrieving these big, heavy bags that felt like carrying the carcass of an animal

Obviously the library was closed for seven months over the winter and my happiest memories of that time were working from the Mobile Library Van while it was stationed outside Morpeth Leisure Centre. Although the temperatures were often freezing or below and the van sometimes didn’t have heating, it was a lovely atmosphere – much of our time was spent chatting with customers, or with colleagues and sharing bags of chips.

The flood was… unsettling.”

Library Assistant

The smell of river water

In the late 1970s I worked in a library that was badly damaged by fire. The 2008 Morpeth Flood is the only other time I’ve experienced such devastation.

I haven’t seen the photos for seven years but looking at them again still brings tears to my eyes at the sheer destruction of so many books, and once again I can smell the river water in my nostrils. It clung to the wellington boots we had to wear and lingered in the boot of my car for weeks.

The salvage experts went in first and just packed everything into crates. Then we had to don scene of crime-type suits and rubber gloves and go through every item, peeling back the damp pages and deciding whether the book could be salvaged. Some books were fairly easy – the less damaged ones. Others were saturated and the pages were stuck together; it proved impossible to separate them a lot of the time. All of them were smeared with foul-smelling mud and dirt with the all-pervasive smell of drains, which was the river waste. The task took about three weeks in all and towards the end; those books that had been in crates all the time were starting to go mouldy as well.

On the up side – Costa Coffee had never done such good business. With no functioning staff room we would troop down for our coffee breaks and even hold impromptu meetings there.

The poetry magazine suffered worse than many of the books. So many of them were just stapled A4 sheets, or had flimsy soft covers; they had no chance against the onslaught of water. Although only the lower shelves in the bookstore had been swept away, that represented a large number of poetry magazines and we undoubtedly lost things that were irreplaceable. It was heart-breaking to pick up a wodge of wet paper and try, unsuccessfully, to separate the individual issues of some rare 1970s periodical. Knowing that conservation and repair would be costly, but not knowing how much or where the money would come from, decisions on what to restore had to be made quickly. Consequently, the local history material had to be prioritised, and with great regret the poetry magazines had to be abandoned. To be fair, a lot of them were beyond any kind of salvage.

It was heart-breaking to pick up a wodge of wet paper and try, unsuccessfully, to separate the individual issues of some rare 1970s periodical.

As the weeks wore on, the library became more and more like a ghost building. There was no electricity so no heating; therefore the dampness clung to the building and chilled you after a few minutes. But the thing I remember most is the smell – musty, of the rotting organic matter that had been swept up in the river. I think it will be one of those smells that stays with you for the rest of your life.

The flood was like an old photograph: the passage of time may fade the edges but can’t completely erase it from my memory.
Pat Hallam, Librarian

Other libraries

The main effect of the flood for me was that I spent most of the six months that Morpeth was closed working at other libraries. As I mainly work in the evenings I wasn’t very much involved with the stock work, but I do remember lots of bags of wet smelly books.

Library Assistant

Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them.Charles Simic, Serbian-American poet