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 V.15 No.19 | May 11 - 17, 2006 


Up in Smoke

Details on the Zimmerman Library fire

Workers clear out some of the aftermath of the fire.
Wes Naman
Workers clear out some of the aftermath of the fire.

A little piece of history was singed the night Zimmerman Library's basement caught fire.

Fran Wilkinson, associate dean of University Libraries, received a call at home around 11 p.m. shortly after the fire broke out. "I had no idea what the damage was," she says, recalling a sense of dread. She rushed to UNM that Sunday evening, April 30, and remained until late Monday.

The next day, a small group of library employees were allowed in to survey the damage, which was mostly in a localized part of the basement. "It's the heart of the University, the flagship building, and it's very, very sad to see it damaged," Wilkinson says. She walked by her former office of many years and saw water damage. Traces of smoke lingered throughout the building, and periodicals and government documents were burned beyond rescue.

Zimmerman Library has been a depository for federal government information since the University was established in 1892, says Dan Barkley, coordinator of government information and microforms. Information that comes through the United States government printing office is available to anyone in the state of New Mexico. That includes statistical parts of the Census, indexes of the government's collection, statutes and consumer info, some of it dating back to the 1700s.

It's irreplaceable. Sure, the library can find electronic copies or paper copies, but the original papers are one-of-a-kind. "It hurts me," says Barkley. "It makes me very sad. It’s disappointing that that collection was impacted like that. The positive side is that a much larger piece of the collection was housed elsewhere."

The building, completed in March 1938, is likely John Gaw Meem's best work, says Van Dorn Hooker, author of Only in New Mexico: An Architectural History of the University of New Mexico. It's also the finest example of Pueblo Revival-style architecture in the state, he says. When he heard of the fire, he was also very distressed. "I have a hard time understanding how it could possibly have gotten started unless it was deliberate," he says. "I don't know of anything in that area that could start a fire."

When the Alibi went to press, the cause of the fire was still under investigation and the library had not been reopened. Restoration firms have been allowed into the building to bid on the cleanup, says UNM spokesperson Karen Wentworth. According to Wentworth, deciding which firm will receive the contract for restoration will probably be done on an emergency basis, meaning it may not go through the Board of Regents. Instead, Risk Management will do the hiring, she says. Though UNM has not determined how much the restoration will cost, fire officials made early estimates at about $1 million.

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