Geisel Library: Urban Legends

Compiled by Barbara Henderson and Charles (Bud) Stem

Mention urban legends and many people immediately think of the alligators-in-the-sewers story. But it turns out that modern mythology covers a broad range of topics - including Geisel Library. Random House Webster's College Dictionary defines urban legend as "a modern story of obscure origin and with little or no supporting evidence that spreads spontaneously in varying forms and often has elements of humor, moralizing or horror." We're not sure about the moralizing and horror, but we have heard some interesting stories about UCSD's largest library. So here's what we've heard along with what we've learned as we've tried to separate fact from fiction:

Geisel Library has been featured in the cult movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and on television in such shows as Simon and Simon, Star Trek, and Mission Impossible.

Sheepishly, we have to admit that this mostly-incorrect statement (and similar ones) can be found in library publications and websites. Staff here are particularly fond of the belief that the library is featured in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes - many claim it appears as a spaceship. Library staff, and others on campus, also are sure that Geisel has appeared in Star Trek and as a spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (looks like there's a theme here). But we've found that none of these beliefs are true, and here is what we've learned:

Since the most prevalent, even cherished, legends involve Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, we were delighted to be able to contact the film's director, John DeBello, for the definitive/ultimate/add-your-favorite-superlative word. (In fact, he is the director of the entire four-film series: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes; Return of the Killer Tomatoes; Killer Tomatoes Strike Back; and Killer Tomatoes Eat France.) Director DeBello said that Geisel Library was not featured in the original Attack, although "some interiors for the film were indeed filmed at UCSD. However, it did make an appearance as the exterior of a research lab in Part III (of the 4-part series) entitled 'Killer Tomatoes Strike Back.' That film featured John Astin and Rick Rockwell (later briefly famous as 'Mr. Darva Conger'). A few other scenes were shot about campus, as well." So Geisel Library is part of the Killer Tomatoes saga, just not in the film most frequently cited, and not as a spaceship. For more Killer Tomatoes information, including film clips and theme song, check out www.killertomatoes.com. And you can view Parts I and III at the Arts Library.

For the Star Trek rumor, we turned to Rene Feuerbach, a computer resource specialist at Geisel Library and a major fan of sci-fi. Having seen the entire Star Trek series, she tells us, "I know the series, I know the library. It looks like it should have been included in ‘Star Trek', but it wasn't." For those who claim to have seen it, she issues this challenge: "Prove it to me. Produce the episode." If you have that proof, let us know. and we'll check it out. In the meantime, we're taking Rene's word on this.

And to find out whether the library stood in for a spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or was in Logan's Run (a rumor we heard recently), we watched the films. The library doesn't make an appearance in either one.

Since the last update of this page, we've received three confirmations (and we know that at least two of them are independent of one another) that the library exterior was shown in an episode of Mission Impossible. Apparently the building was the headquarters of a company or organization, and two people told us that it was in season seven. We're comfortable adding Mission Impossible to the list of confirmed sightings, but will hold off on identifying a specific episode until we've had a chance to view season seven. If anyone has a copy they could loan to the library for a few days, please let us know.

So, that brings us to Simon & Simon which we know is accurate. The building's exterior was featured in the introduction to this long-running (1981-1988) series, and some filming was done inside as well.

The number and persistence of the beliefs about Geisel Library's star quality put the concept in the category of urban legends. But in this instance, there is some basis in fact. There are plenty of appearances in addition to Killer Tomatoes Strike Back, Simon & Simon and the Mission Impossible episode - they just aren't the ones most commonly identified. Following is a list of other confirmed sightings:

  • Film:
    •  Funky Monkey (with a working title of Hairy Tale) was filmed at Geisel in December 2003. One scene had someone parachuting to the back of the library, and another used special effects to make it look like a person rode a motorcycle off the plaza/Forum level (warning - do not attempt this at home).
    • Proud American - Scenes for this IMAX production were filmed inside the library but we don't know if they made the final version.
    • California State of Mind is a documentary about former Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown. As with Proud American, we don't know whether the scenes that include Geisel Library are part of the finished product.
    • While not an actual appearance, the Snow Fortress in Inception was clearly inspired by the Geisel Library Building.
  • Television series
    • According to TV.com, Push "was a soap opera about a group of young Olympic hopefuls in training at California Southern University." Perhaps hoping to achieve the longevity of Simon and Simon, this 1998 series showed Geisel Library in the credits. But the show was cancelled after three episodes.
    • The library was visible in the background in episodes of Veronica Mars and John From Cincinnati.
  • Advertisements:
    • Kohler - In a television commercial for faucets, an architect is showing samples of his work. Geisel becomes a company headquarters in Kyoto. Look for the photo with a faucet in the foreground at: www.us.kohler.com/craftsmanship/television.jsp
    • Automobiles - The library has been the background for numerous auto ads and for an article in Motor Trend magazine.
    • Military recruitment - In 1999, Spike Lee directed a series of commercials designed to increase enlistments. One ad was filmed at UCSD with the library in the background.
    • International - University Communications staff told us that Geisel was featured in an ad for Audi shot by a London company and again when fashion models were photographed for a German print catalog.
  • Fiction - Appropriately, Geisel Library makes an appearance in a novel - Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. According to a Publishers Weekly review (February 27, 2006), the story includes "a somewhat quixotic plot by elderly former University of California-San Diego faculty members to protest the destruction of the university library, now rendered superfluous by the ubiquitous online databanks." (We hope this isn't an urban legend in-the-making.) You can find a copy of Rainbows End at the Social Sciences and Humanities Library.

And how is it that Geisel Library has become a star of page, screen and television (or at least plays a supporting role)? Here's John DeBello's view: "Why Geisel? Its '60s-style 'futuristic' architecture makes it a no-brainer for 'sci-fi' locations...the Widener Library at Harvard just can't compare."

Dr. Seuss/Theodor Geisel gave money to build the library

Because staff at the Geisel Library Information Desk have heard so many versions of this statement, it is being added to the list of urban legends. A closer look at the history of the library shows why it is a myth and not fact.

The library was dedicated on March 19, 1971 and was originally called Central University Library. It became Geisel Library on December 1, 1995 and, according to UCSD University Communications, "is named in honor of the famed author, who died in La Jolla in 1991, and his widow, Audrey Geisel. UCSD received Geisel's collection of drawings, notebooks and other memorabilia following his death, and four years later Audrey Geisel made a substantial donation to support the university's libraries."

The Dr. Seuss Collection is housed in the Mandeville Special Collections Library, located within Geisel Library. Because of the fragility of the materials in the Seuss Collection, access to the collection is restricted to researchers who previously obtained permission from the director of special collections. Items from the collection are usually on exhibit during summer session and during the month of March (Dr. Seuss' birthday).

Finally, to head off any future rumors by those who might see the design of Geisel Library matching the whimsy of Dr. Seuss' work, it should be noted that the architect was William Pereira, not Theodor Geisel. Brian Schottlaender, University Librarian, relates a charming anecdote on this very subject:

I love the story that Audrey Geisel tells of how she and Ted came up to campus for a walk and first saw the main library. Now remember, in those days this building was much more isolated than it is now; it literally rose up out of the ground. As Audrey recalls, Ted said, "Wow! If I were an architect, that's the library that I would build." And so when Ted passed away, Audrey decided that this would be Ted's library.

Geisel Library is sinking because of the weight of the books.

When asked to respond to this belief, Mike Mogelinski, Director of Library Facilities, stated emphatically (and succinctly) "The library is not sinking."

Not that we doubt Mike's credibility, but it's worth noting that Encyclopedia of Urban Legends has a category devoted to "Sinking Libraries": "In a typical 'architect's blunder' legend, college and university libraries across the country are rumored to be sinking because the architect forgot to figure the weight of all the books into his design."

We think Geisel Library has become part of the nationwide legend.

The original design of the library did not include concrete buttresses. The architect didn't consider the weight of the books so the support had to be added.

"Architects' Blunders" is another subject heading in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. "Sometimes these alleged problems are said to be flaws in the original designs - as when an architect fails to allow for the weight of the books to be stored in a new library."

William Pereira was the architect for Geisel Library (originally named Central Library). "Evaluation: Lantern-like Library Held Aloft on Concrete Fingers" by James Britton II, AIA Journal 66, no.9 (August 1977): 30-35 describes the evolution of the buttress design.

The sculptural character of the superstructure arises from the use of 16 concrete bents or brackets to hold up floors which otherwise would have been strenuous cantilevers. The architects wrestled with space-frame conceptions in 1965 when they expected to build the entire structure in steel. Drawings show that the design at that time suggested a fancy layer cake supported on toothpicks, with nothing like the visual impact that finally emerged.

Fortunately, high cost of the design in steel forced the architects to consider concrete instead. One of them, James Manning, recalls that he held up his hand with fingers spread in a gesture to suggest the supporting structure that was finally accepted. Indeed, one of the symbolic overtones of the final design is of books held high above the earthbound.

Since buttresses were part of the original construction, we're sure we have another example of an urban legend.

The hourly chimes from the top of the library are a recording of Berkeley's Campanile.

In UCSD's Nightcap (Winter 2002), Cynthia D'Angelo looked into this belief. "Here and now, this legend is laid to rest: UCSD is in fact blessed with a carillon - the name for a set of tuned bells." Her research shows that the Irene Rubinger/Institute of Continued Learning Memorial Carillon has "bells more akin to chimes and are played electronically. There is an amplifier that projects their sound through speakers atop the library and onto campus." Scott Paulson is the University Carillonneur and additional information is available here.

There isn't a third floor because when the engineers designed the building they didn't account for the weight of the books. If books were stored on the third floor, then the weight from the books would cause the building to topple over.

This concept, a variation on "Architects' Blunders," contains a bit of mystery. But the item in question is the numbering of floors, not the design.

William Pereira's original plans are found in Central library: University of California at San Diego located in the Mandeville Special Collections Library. He planned a Lower Level and Main Level (now floors 1 and 2) topped by the Forum Level, "the roof of the floor below, an open plaza that will be used for many different functions...." The upper floors were designated First through Fifth Levels of the Stacks and are now numbered floors 4 through 8.

We haven't been able to determine when or why the five stacks levels were labeled floors 4 through 8 or why there is no floor number 3. If anyone has the answer, please let us know.

Some time ago, Geisel Library was part of a tradition for graduate students. To celebrate completion of a dissertation, the author tossed a copy of the book off the Geisel rooftop while a gong was sounded.

This statement is part truth, part urban legend. In the past, dissertations were bound in book form and submitted to the Mandeville Special Collections Library. There was a gong in that library's entry area and it was struck when a graduate student presented the bound dissertation. Now the gong is in a different location and 99% of dissertations are submitted electronically, so the tradition has faded away.

But we can find no basis for the belief that dissertations were ever tossed from the top of Geisel Library. Lynda Claassen, Director of the Mandeville Special Collections Library guarantees that it didn't happen between 1983 and the present. We checked with several people who worked in the building from the time it opened in 1970 (known then as Central University Library) through 1983 and beyond. None of them ever heard of dissertations being tossed from the roof. There's also a safety issue involved here - both the danger of someone falling off the roof  and of someone on the ground being hit by a falling book (presuming it sailed past the extended sixth floor ledge). For all of these reasons, we believe that the concept of dissertation tossing from the roof of Geisel Library is an urban legend.

Although we deal with Geisel legends, we were intrigued by the fact that the gong-sounding part was true and wanted to see what we could learn about the period before 1971. According to UC San Diego Library Milestones , the campus library began at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and moved to the main campus in 1964, first at Galbraith Hall, then Urey Hall.  For the main-campus period, we turned to Dr. Stanley Chodorow, Professor Emeritus of History. He has been part of UCSD since 1968 and said he has "never heard of or witnessed a dissertation tossing/dropping".

So could this practice have originated at SIO? Peter Brueggeman, Director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library & Archives, is both the author of History of the SIO Library and has worked there since 1984. He has never heard of anything being tossed from the roof of the current building which opened in 1976. Dr. Richard Rosenblatt , Professor Emeritus, SIO addressed the period from 1958 to 1977: "...I can assure you that no one ever threw anything off the roof of the library. Also, remember that the first functioning departments at UCSD were the science ones. Scientific dissertations are typically published as journal articles, not books. Your usual reprint would flutter down, not land with a satisfying thud." The combination of his definitive reply and wonderfully practical observation thoroughly debunks the idea of dissertation dropping at SIO.

We know now that submission of a dissertation used to be celebrated by sounding a gong in Special Collections. But how did that tradition get mixed in with the concept of tossing a copy from the roof of the library? Dr. Chodorow offered the following explanation: 

My conjecture is that the legend is a conflation of the early tradition of striking the gong in Special Collections and the watermelon toss from Urey Hall.  The watermelon toss started in the first years of the campus, probably 1966 or 67, after a physics exam on which one of the questions was something like "If you dropped a watermelon from the top floor of Urey Hall, how far would the pieces be spread?"  After the exam, the students went out and found a watermelon and tried it. 

That makes perfect sense to us.

With its unique design, Geisel Library has become the visual symbol for UCSD. Urban legends, according to American Folklore: an encyclopedia, "help define a city's sense of itself as a particular place." Substitute university for city and it's not hard to see why our campus is a source of intriguing stories. For more background, enter urban folklore as the subject in ROGER or use the Academic Search Complete database with keywords urban legends. (Repeat the search with urban folklore for some additional resources). You can also check www.snopes.com.

And that concludes this installment of urban legends involving Geisel Library. If you've heard new rumors or come across additional sightings on film, TV, etc., please let us know.