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An Old Joke Endlessly Repeated

Folsom Library, the main library building at RPI, is located at the transition where the gradual westward slope of the campus becomes a steep hill down to the Hudson River and downtown Troy. As a new student, I had been on campus maybe a week before someone told me that the designers of the building had forgotten to include the weight of the books, and as a result the library was sliding down the hill. It seemed unlikely, but I was 17 and very much not an engineer, so I kept my mouth shut. I heard that line repeated a lot in my four years there. I have since heard the same joke (sometimes with “sinking into the ground” substituted for “sliding down the hill”) on four other college campuses. Apparently people have some deep-seated desire to think structural engineers are forgetful to the point of idiocy.

In any case, the photo above shows the library at the University of Illinois campus in Urbana under construction in 1926. That forest of steel is not shoring. It’s the framing for the stacks and it couldn’t have been designed without using the weight of the books it was meant to support.