The University closed the Regenstein Library's fifth floor offices and book sorting facilities on Thursday afternoon due to fears that a shipment of books sent by the Library of Congress from New Delhi, India, through the Brentwood mail facility in Washington, D.C. had been exposed to anthrax.
"It wasn't the books, only the boxes [they were sent in] that were potentially exposed to anthrax," said James Nye, bibliographer for South Asian studies who received the boxes on the fifth floor of the library.
Nye and his department participate in the South Asia Cooperative Acquisitions Program (SACAP), a government-funded program through which the library receives monthly shipments of books that the Library of Congress collects from across the world. This month, most of the books reached the general mailroom on the A-level of the Regenstein on or before October 15, but a few straggling boxes were received days later.
Early last week, the Library of Congress called Nye to alert him to the possibility that these parcels passed through the Brentwood facility at the time of Senator Tom Daschle's anthrax-contaminated letter.
Judy C. McDermott, chief of the African/Asian acquisitions and overseas operations division of the Library of Congress, also informed SACAP participants of the possibility that parcels would have passed through the Brentwood facility.
"It is . . . probable, although not verifiable, that the [Library of Congress] parcels would have safely transited the Brentwood facility before the Daschle letter's passage," McDermott stated in the email.
The Chicago Police Department was alerted to the concern on Thursday afternoon. They assessed the risk as inadequate to merit testing, and the Post Office, which was also contacted by the University safety office, concurred. "The circumstances were kind of curious, and it was a borderline call," Nye said.
Considering the potential threat, University officials decided to take further precautions and sought the services of SET, an environmental safety firm, to test parcels for anthrax.
As a result, the book sorting areas and two offices on the fifth floor of the library closed at 4 p.m. on Thursday and remained closed all day Friday for investigation.
SET examined everything received by the fifth floor of the Regenstein on October 9 or later and found no apparent contamination. The entire fifth floor was reopened on Saturday, November 3.
According to Martin Runkle, director of the Regenstein, the delivery raised valid concerns. "Since the library receives a very large number of letters and packages from many parts of the world and the incoming mail is distributed from the library receiving areas to most areas of the library buildings, continued vigilance is warranted," Runkle stated in an e-mail to the library staff.
According to Cliff Jordan, supervisor of the Regenstein mailroom, library employees have no cause for alarm.
"We're not nervous at all," Jordan said. "There's no indication that someone can contaminate specific shipments, and the library receives all of its parcels from specific publishers, and the shipping room does not receive any personal mail or letters."
To be cautious, the University has supplied safety gear to members of its library mailrooms. "We've all been given a mask and gloves, but we're not using them. We're just playing it down the middle," Jordan said.
Jordan recalled threats from a few years ago that the Unabomber would target academia. "This kind of thing has happened two or three times in the past 10 years," he said.