Some Things They Just Can't Teach You in Library School
By Sasha Nyary, Dean’s Editorial Fellow
When the directorship of Monson Free Library opened up in spring 2010, Katie Krol ’07LS, jumped at the chance to apply. She was familiar with the small Western Mass. town, population 8,560, because her daughter had settled there with her family. Nestled in the Chicopee Brook valley, 20 miles east of Springfield and not far from the Connecticut border, the center of Monson exudes “New England village,” with its Congregational Church overlooking downtown, the wooded hills just beyond. Across the street and just below the church sits the small library, an original 130-year-old historic building with a 20-year-old wing addition. “I would drive by and think that running that library would be my dream job,” Krol says.
And then the job opened up, and she got it. Krol started that June, the sole full-time employee. Thus began a “series of unfortunate events . . . at the library.” One August day, just six weeks after she began, Krol was in the children’s room and she happened to notice something that looked like thick black tar on the wall behind some shelving. “Mold. Black mold. The worst, most contagious kind,” she says. “I had to shut down the room and have it completely renovated, including examining 10,000 books individually to make sure they weren’t mold-infested too. They were not.” The children’s room was relocated to what had been the reading room, a round, tower-like space with large windows and a 40-foot ceiling. All of the children’s collection was moved to this new location.
“Our next event was in early January, just after closing on a Friday afternoon,” she says, when everyone had gone home. That afternoon, the person delivering interlibrary-loan materials let himself into the building and heard a strange noise. A large pipe had burst in the ceiling next to the new children’s room and water was pouring in. As it turned out, the waterfall had set off the
alarms, and the fire department responded immediately. They found the water source, turned it off, and cleaned up the water that had already flooded the reference section. “We lost tens of thousands of dollars worth of books, but it could have been far worse,” Krol says. The room was renovated and reopened in May. A couple of weeks later, the Greater Springfield Tornado hit.
The tornado that destroyed half of Monson on June 1 was actually part of a greater storm system that included seven tornados; rated a “strong EF3,” this was the strongest of the bunch. Winds of upwards of 160 miles an hour hammered an unusually long 39-mile path, a half-mile wide, from Westfield through greater Springfield and on to Wilbraham, Monson, and Brimfield, and finally petering out in Charlton, just past Sturbridge. Three people were killed, and the area sustained at least $175 million in damages.
The Monson Free Library was open as usual that Wednesday, and it was full of patrons, including a group participating in a children’s Lego Club program. Krol, who has had a lifelong tornado phobia (she doesn’t know why, but she suspects it’s because of The Wizard of Oz), had no warning, but when the tornado struck she knew immediately what was happening. “You just know,” she says quietly. “You just know. It’s instinct.” In part it was because of the intense air pressure she felt in her ears, she says, and a strange quiet, followed by a deafening roar.
Instinctively, Krol also knew what to do. She ran through the library, yelling for everyone to get into the bathroom. Then as patrons and staff filed in, she ran to the narrow, twisting stairway that leads up to the original 1881 building, a two-story steel and granite monolith with stained glass windows where the Lego Club was meeting. “Everyone get down here now!” Krol screamed up the stairs, and the parents and kids tumbled down, racing to the bathroom. As the last person passed by her through the door, the huge windows above burst into the stairwell, driving shards of glass into the wall right where heads had been moments before.
As they huddled in the bathroom, waiting out the storm, someone reminded Krol that a parent and her child were in their car in the parking lot. They were to learn later that all the windows in all the cars in the lot imploded at once, but the mother and child did manage to get safely in the building just as Krol was coming out to get them.
When they all emerged from that safe place, they walked out the front door to total devastation. “We walked out finding ourselves smack in the middle of a post-apocalyptic movie with an entire town in shock,” Krol says. The street was covered with trees and downed power lines. Fortunately, no one was killed in Monson. But 77 buildings were damaged, many of them flattened entirely. The steeple on the church was gone, swept right off the building. The roof and top floor had been lifted off the town hall, the former high school.
Stepping through the ruins, Krol got a call on her cell phone. It was her daughter, who Krol thought was safely at home across town and thus out of the tornado’s path. “But actually she was across the street with two of her kids,” she says. “They had been at a dance class.” Her daughter’s group survived by hiding in what had been the walk-in refrigerator of former occupants, a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Krol and her staff stayed for six hours, she says, helping the patrons and keeping the doors open to anyone who needed a place to go, until eventually the authorities evacuated everyone in Monson Center. “Everyone cried a lot,” Krol says. “We still cry a lot.” She credits her staff who were there with her. “They went above and beyond, and with immense humanity and caring.”
Two months later, a clear view of the tornado’s path was easy to see from the ridges on either side of the town. A half-mile wide swath of flattened trees, or muddy fields with stumps, indicated where the thick forests used to be. Many of the fields were simply holes in the ground where houses used to stand. The remaining buildings were covered with Tyvek, sheetrock, or blue tarps. The local lumberyard was stacked with new logs and piles of freshly split firewood, but there was much more to clear. As the downed limbs and trees dry out, there’s a risk of fire, and getting access to reach those fires will be difficult.
As for the library, insurance has covered the repairs, and while it’s not complete, the work has gone fast: The library reopened on July 15, and patrons streamed back. The children’s room was repainted and carpeted — the old carpet was covered with glass, as were the walls, which had to be sanded. The walls in the stairwell to the original building also had to be sanded and repainted — aquarium blue replaced the battleship gray — and arrayed with large stickers of sea life. The stained glass windows in the original building, however, were untouched. A table near the front door offered handouts and flyers about receiving and giving help. Patrons chatted about insurance claims and fundraisers.
The shades remain drawn for two reasons, Krol says. Monson was heavily wooded, and now with so many trees gone, the sun is quite strong. But also, when patrons are in the library, she doesn’t want them to look out at the devastation just beyond. They can be inside with books and people, tell their stories, and try to get some respite.
The library’s reopening was an important milestone for this devastated, stunned town, where severe storms — including funnel cloud sightings — continued through the summer. “They don’t teach you this in library school,” Krol says. “They can’t. How to deal with a broken pipe, black mold, and a devastating tornado, all in less than a year.” Everyone in town is traumatized, and the ones who were not in the tornado’s path have survivor guilt. Krol knows what she has to do now, even as she is suffering from her own trauma; she says: Maintain the library as a resource for the town as it recovers. It will be years.
The library’s fall programming includes a talk by an MIT grad student about the science of tornadoes and a writing workshop designed to help participants work through their feelings about the tornado, whether they experienced it firsthand or were a bystander.