Tales from the Catalog : Is This Radioactive?

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I’m Jaime Taylor, the Center for Jewish History’s systems librarian. My
job has two components: I administer the catalog software, and I also do
strange things with the catalog records themselves. As such, by chance I see records
for all sorts of interesting items that I might not otherwise realize the
Center holds.

Some months ago I read a title, “Trinitite from Trinity
Nuclear Test.” Farther down the record, in the physical description,
“trinitite encased in plastic.” Below that, “Sample of trinitite
taken from ground zero of the Trinity nuclear test.”

I froze at my keyboard.

Were we all going to die of radiation poisoning?

Every once in a while, archives listservs get emails about
what to do with firearms, ammunition, or un-exploded ordinance found in a box or
a cabinet somewhere. (We also get emails about what to do with, say
hundred-year-old cake. It’s truly an exciting field.) But I hadn’t yet read
about what to do if you find something radioactive in the stacks.

Did I have the record for something radioactive? You’d think
that collection managers emeritus would have been smarter than to catalog and
file away a dangerous radioactive item. You’d also be quite surprised at the
number of live grenades archivists and museum curators stumble across.

Before sending alarmed emails to my supervisors, I did some
research. We are, after all, librarians; information is our thing. The
Wikipedia article was very informative.

Thankfully, I learned that trinitite is the glass-like
result of the first nuclear test, held in New Mexico in 1945, as our catalog
record indicates – and while it is slightly radioactive, it is not considered
dangerous. Oh, the relief! No all-caps email to the library director. Instead
we are left with just this blog post to commemorate the brief spike in my heart
rate.

You can see an image of our trinitite by following the
“Display item” link in our catalog record HERE.

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