Tag Archives: Water Disaster

Saving the Books

When I arrived the morning of May 20th, I was met with a flurry of activity. Over the previous weekend, a small drip had made a big mess in the reference section of the reading room. Since it was so small and over the weekend, we didn’t notice it until it had reached several books. I immediately headed to the conference room to do damage control.

Good news first: only a few books were beyond saving. The water in its slow creep hadn’t had time to do much damage. Plus most of the books were large, heavy reference books, with hardcovers that actually kept the pages more or less above the flood. Those that had been hit were also easy-to-replace, and the books with wet covers could be rebound. All in all, not a worst-case scenario.

However, there was some work to do. In order to keep the moisture from seeping and staying in the books, thus creating a mold problem and disfiguring the books, we had to dry them out.  To do this, we placed paper towels in between the pages that were damper than others, and set every book standing up facing a fan to dry out the book right down to its spine.

Exactly what it looked like. From http://artfullyarrangeddisarray.blogspot.com

Exactly what it looked like. From http://artfullyarrangeddisarray.blogspot.com

It took 4 of us about 4 hours to collect the books, carefully inspect them, decide which ones needed additional help, set them up, and monitor their improvement. In both my internship and classes we spend a lot of time discussing preservation and techniques used when working to quickly salvage a damaged collection, but it was the first time I had ever put these teachings to practice. I can’t say I enjoyed it – after all these were books on the line, and I would never ever wish them harm – but it was a learning experience. The quick thinking of the Burke library staff, their calm demeanor, and instant evaluation of the situation allowed a lot of books to be saved.

We are currently double-checking the shelves to make sure the leak has been thoroughly sealed and won’t damage any more books. If you see a library staff member, thank them for the work they did to save the reference books you need!

Be prepared!

If Hurricane Sandy and Winter Storm Athena have taught us anything, it’s to be prepared. We all knew that both storms were coming, and we were able to prepare to the best of our abilities, but nobody knew what the extent of the damage would be. If that has taught us anything else, it’s that even our best attempts can fall short. There is no excuse not to have a plan!

So how can a cultural institution like Burke, or any of the other Columbia libraries, be and remain prepared for a natural disaster like Sandy? (Based off of Columbia University Libraries’ Disaster Response Manual)

1) Keep an updated emergency contact list on hand, including the names and numbers of your institution’s preservation and conservation department.

2) Be prepared with all the necessary supplies, and replenish when needed. Such supplies might include plastic tarps, buckets, paper towels, and other cleaning supplies.

3) Assign priorities to certain groups of materials, so that they will be attended to first in the event of an emergency.

4) Ensure the safety and security of the area in question. Make sure the exits are clear, that the security systems are working, et cetera.

5) Know the floorplan where the collections are located. Note the location of fire extinguishers, emergency exits, sprinklers, et cetera, and make revisions to said floorplan when necessary.

6) Reduce the potential risks to collections, including both fire and water damage. Make sure, for example, that collections are not located on the floor (in case of flooding), and make sure that appliances such as space heaters are turned off.

7) Document all reports of maintenance problems in your location and be sure to report all leaks and other issues to facilities, whether or not damage has resulted from these problems. Proper attention to these and other issues will help curb future problems.

It is important to note that as your institution evolves, so must your disaster preparedness plan. Collections may move, floorplans may change, and key staff members come and go throughout the years. Keeping your plan up to date and making sure that all staff members are continually updated is integral in to maintaining disaster preparedness in your institution. And while having a plan in place is no guarantee that your institution is safe from disaster, you still have done all that you can do to prepare. The rest, unfortunately, is up to the unpredictable force that is Mother Nature.

The Why

Now that you know a little more about the MRL and WAB collections, as well as the Luce Foundation, I thought it would be useful to explain the reason behind needing this project in the first place.

Most, if not all, archives and libraries have what we call "backlog." Our collections are continually growing: we gather historic documents; professors, alumni, etc… donate their records; people leave material to us in their will; things like that. Unfortunately we don't always have the time (or the funding) to fully process and make available collections as soon as they come into our possession. We give them basic care, security, and the proper environmental conditions and control, but physically arranging and intellectually describing materials can be very time-consuming.

Enter the first reason for this project.

A second major reason for this project and the need to care for MRL and WAB specifically is due to the damage suffered during a major water incursion disaster in the Burke's modern archives stacks in June 2003. Water from a plumbing accident in the Brown Tower (this Brown is not the same as William Adams Brown!), two floors above, saturated materials from the WAB and MRL collections.

The wet papers in disintegrating boxes were quickly removed, relocated, shipped out as an emergency, recovered by vacuum freeze drying, and returned. These collections, which had already experienced a variety of temperature and humidity changes from being used throughout the world by missionaries and ecumenists, became even more fragile and disordered. There was approximately 300 linear feet returned in a state of disarray, with WAB and MRL collections intermixed and much of the original order lost.

The MRL Archives present the special challenge of fragile acidic materials. Various climates combined with being stored for almost a century in acidic boxes in over-heated conditions throughout the history of the actual Missionary Research Library added to their fragile nature. Many unique items are tightly folded and require time, patience and preservation techniques to unfold and care for the items in the long-term.

Throughout the duration of the Luce Project at the Burke Library, which just passed the one-year mark, we will arrange, describe, and provide wide access to a total of 573 linear feet of hidden archives. This project will process the collections so that they are organized and described, with basic preservation treatment through stabilization in acid-free containers, ordered arrangement, and removal of corrosive metals and other materials. This arrangement will enable more advanced preservation treatment and the potential for surrogate copies and selective digitization on those materials which have been stabilized.

For the first time, researchers will have access to many first-hand descriptions of cultural conditions documented by missionaries, physicians, and social workers in Asia, Africa, Australia, North America, Oceania, and South America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This project will also be the first to provide access to the records of some of the most important events and institutions in the history of the worldwide ecumenical movement, with especially rich documentation of the religious and cultural history of New York City.