On February 7 2021, a Facebook user shared a Twitter screenshot with a “fun fact” about a library at Yale University that involved a mechanism that would “protect the rare books” from the effects of a putative fire, but at the same time ensuring that every human in the building would die:
No dates were visible, and neither was the Twitter handle of the person to whom the sharer of the “fun fact” (@mvddm) was initially replying.
Google Trends indicated search interest about the claim on February 7 and 8 2020, yielding clues about the underlying library and the topic. Related searches included:
- “Yale library fire system”;
- “Library at Yale fire”;
- “Yale library anti fire system”;
- “Beinecke library,” and;
- “Beinecke library fire.”
That Twitter reply was originally published on November 12 2018, and it garnered significant engagement:
A second reply published a day later by a separate account said that the “fun fact” about the Yale library was false, but added that “because it’s the internet people believe it”:
Alongside a similar photograph to the one in the screenshot, a title read, “Beinecke Library at Yale. Before going in, you sign a release allowing them to suck the oxygen out of the room if they detect a fire.”
A “History & Architecture” page (under “About”) on beinecke.library.yale.edu described the building’s exterior and collection, saying in part:
The exterior framework gestures to the golden ratio: fifteen marble blocks run across the face of the building, five run vertically, and ten run along its depth, representing the ratio of 3:1:2. This is also a nod to the collections, as the pages of many early books and manuscripts are laid out in this proportion, considered pleasing to the eye and reverential to the text.
The Beinecke Llibrary holds more than one million books, many millions of manuscript pages, and tens of thousands of papyri, photographs, maps, posters, paintings, and art objects, as well as extensive audiovisual material and born-digital content. Collections range from ancient fragments on papyrus through works by living authors. Major collections include Early Books and Manuscripts (pre-1500), Early Modern (1500 to 1800), Modern (post-1800), American Literature, Western Americana, German Literature, the Osborn Collection of English literary and historical manuscripts, the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters, and the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature.
The research level and most of the stacks are on two underground floors that extend beneath the plaza. Registered readers may consult the collections directly in the reading room. The Beinecke Library welcomes nearly 10,000 research visits annually, with about half from Yale and half from beyond campus. The library serves as a nexus for original scholarship in a wide range of fields: from literary and cultural studies to the history of science, music, theater, and art; the history of the book, photography, graphic design, and architecture; social, intellectual, and political history; medieval, Renaissance, and eighteenth-century Europe; American literature; Western Americana; nineteenth-century imperialism; African American culture; British literature; gay, lesbian, and transgender studies; transatlantic Modernism; postwar counterculture; contemporary American poetry; and more.
That entry did not mention certain death for library staff and visitors in the event of a fire, although it was informative in other ways. But a February 2010 entry, “Myths abound about Beinecke,” antedated all three social media posts and eventually addressed the “fire” claims. It began:
Since its opening in 1963, the marble exterior of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has kept hidden Yale’s most obscure texts and invited the speculation of visitors and students alike. Stephen Jones, head of access services at the Beinecke Library, shared with the News some of the most widespread rumors and absurd myths that abound on campus.
Incidentally, three of the four myths about Beinecke Library addressed were rated as strictly false (including, “In the event of a nuclear attack on New Haven, the Beinecke will descend into the ground, acting as a bomb shelter”) except for the fire claim. That came with the following explanation and clarification:
MYTH: The library’s fire-extinguishing system removes the air from the book stacks in the event of a conflagration, dooming any librarians inside to a slow death by asphyxiation.
MOSTLY FALSE: According to Jones, this legend has a kernel of truth: Instead of water sprinklers that would harm the rare books collections, he said, a combination of halon and Inergen gases would be pumped into the stacks to stop the combustion process, and thus the spread of fire.
“They do lower the percentage of oxygen, but not enough to kill any librarians,” Jones said.
The inner stacks surrounded by glass that house the Beinecke Library’s delicate collections (known to insiders as “the Tower”) are airtight in order to slow the books’ aging process. This presented problems in the mid-1970s when a bookworm infestation could not be addressed with traditional airborne insecticides, Jones said. To solve the problem, the library worked with Yale entomologist Charles Remington, who recommended that the affected books be wrapped in plastic and frozen at minus 33 degrees for three days. The process, which is still used on all of the Beinecke Library’s new acquisitions, took two and a half years to complete, Jones said.
Although the rumor had been “debunked” for years (2010) by the time it hit Reddit (2016), Twitter (2018), and Facebook (2021) posts, it clearly came well before viral social media posts based on the 2010 “Myths abound …” page. Furthermore, the Yale.edu page characterized the claim as having some truth to it, indicating that “a combination of halon and Inergen gases would be pumped into the stacks to stop the combustion process” would activate instead of sprinklers — and that while ambient oxygen would be reduced, it would be at levels insufficient to kill any librarians, and perhaps it would spare the odd graduate student as well.
A viral screenshot of a 2018 tweet claiming that a “fun fact” about Yale’s Beinecke Library was that “if a fire starts in the library, all the oxygen leaves the building killing all who are inside in order to protect the rare books.” The claim appeared to be older than social media, and was addressed by Stephen Jones (head of access services at the Beinecke Library) in 2010. Jones confirmed that the structure had alternative means of suppressing fire in lieu of sprinklers, but he added that the reduction of ambient oxygen would not be fatal to anyone in the library should a fire occur. We have rated this claim Not True, as the “fun fact” hinges on a purported (and counterfactual) claim that the safety measures would be fatal to library staff and patrons in order to protect the rare books.