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World Association of International Studies

Post Rescuing Waterlogged Books and Documents
Created by John Eipper on 04/24/21 3:38 AM

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Rescuing Waterlogged Books and Documents (Edward Jajko, USA, 04/24/21 3:38 am)

John E asked about the technologies available to rescue water-damaged books and documents.

Some individual documents may be salvaged by being sandwiched as often as needed between sheets of absorbent paper--paper towels. Fans are used to blow air over the material. Care must be taken not to destroy the wet material, to save ink, handwriting, affixed materials such as seals and bullae, photos, etc., and infixed things like impressed seals. Books and other MSS must be freeze-dried ASAP to inhibit mold and mildew, then carefully defrosted and refrozen as needed. Absorbent paper may be needed. Disaster preservation and restoration is an exacting science.

Events like this show the virtues of fire suppression systems that don't use water. They have to be used with care. When I worked at Yale forty to fifty (!) years ago, and was granted access to the work spaces of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I was warned to heed any fire alarm and get out quickly. Beinecke had a halon system that automatically shut and locked doors, closing off the rare book stacks and work and storage areas and then flooding those areas with anaerobic gas. That put an end to any fire and to anyone caught inside. People have died in such anaerobic environments (though not st Yale, as far as I know).

Not long after I began at the Hoover Institution Library in January 1983, the fire chief of Santa Clara County decreed that both the library and archives had to install overhead sprinklers. In the Tower, this involved many aggravating months of diamond drilling to cut holes in the almost foot-thick walls and floors of the 300' tall Tower so that a complex network of rather ugly pipes could be inserted, soldered or welded together and connected with the water system and a pump outside the building. To the best of my knowledge, this system has never been tested by fire, but 20 or so years ago one of the sprinklers in the Archives reading room failed, fortunately during working hours. Patrons, staff, and materials were doused with filthy water, which got into the archives stacks below. I don't know how it was all resolved.

Stanford's main library, the Cecil Green Library, was designed with a side entrance with a glass door in a wall of glass, that door at the bottom of a slanting, sort of slot in the earth. It was very pretty, but soon after the opening of Green Library it seems to have been decided that that side door was insecure and would not be used. The scoop in the earth remained. Then there came exceptional rains, utter downpours. The scoop seems to have filled up in the night and the waters came crashing through the door, flooding the entire lowest level of the stacks, with water rising high enough to submerge all bottom shelves of books. Industrial pumps had to be called in, to remove the rainwater, and commercial dehumidifiers and fans had to be brought in. As for those soaked books, they were removed by many volunteer staff members and sent to a freeze drying plant on the Peninsula. It was months before they returned. In some cases, it was probably cheaper to buy new copies.

The ground floor of the Hoover Tower also flooded that same night, because of an outside stairway built into the ground. But the results were less drastic than those in Green.

Ah, the placid world of libraries and archives.

JE comments:  Fire and water--the librarian's worst nightmare!  Much obliged for the insight, Ed.  It would seem that few tools are available beyond the obvious:  towels and blowing air.  And a little common sense when building your library:  keep your collections above the ground.  Yet every research library I know has one or more basement levels.  Inevitable perhaps when storage is at a premium, but not the smartest approach.  Floods and plumbing catastrophes inevitably happen.

I never knew about halon fire-suppression systems.  The chemical agent causes ozone depletion and hasn't been produced in the US since the 1990s.  Yet it continues to be used in some places.

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  • Rescuing the U Cape Town Library, Archives (Jose Manuel de Prada, -Spain 04/25/21 8:51 AM)
    I thank Edward Jajko (April 24th) for his most informative post about the rescuing and restoration of water-damaged books and documents.

    In the case of of the Jagger Reading Room materials at the University of Cape Town, I have been told that some of them have been put in a freezer.

    A whole team of volunteers are reportedly involved in the rescue operations.

    It is true, a JE says, that keeping the collections above ground is wise planning decision, even if storage space is problem. Yet at UCT, space in general is quite an issue. The university Rondebosch campus is literally built on the side of Table Mountain, on land that was bequeathed in the late 19th century by the infamous tycoon Cecil Rhodes, who actually owned most of the mountain. You have to climb lots of stairs when you walk around that campus.

    I have always admired how planners and architects managed to make the most of such a complex, nay impossible, building space.

    Curiously enough, in this case, it was the materials stored at the upper levels which suffered the most damage, in part because of an iron anti-fire door that prevented the fire going there. I think it was other doors of this kind which stopped the fire from getting into the open-stacks library, which would have carried it into the heart of the campus. Another asset was that many of the archival collections were stored in another building, precisely because of the general space shortage at UCT.

    This photo essay gives an idea of the damaged caused by fire and water to the Jagger Reading Room at UCT:


    In a statement issued by the Vice-Chancellor of UCT, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, it is said that most of the 70,000 items in the African Studies Collection have perished. These included "monographs spanned the whole of sub-Saharan Africa and included national imprints from the entire continent as well as works published in Europe and North America. The collections were especially strong in gender studies, media studies, HIV/AIDS issues, and debates around the character of African studies as a discipline. There was an important collection on Southern African languages, donated to the university in the 1950s, which included religious texts and school textbooks as well as dictionaries and grammars. Some of the titles in these collections, published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were extremely rare."

    See recent images of the rescue here:


    I have worked with those collections for many, many years, and it is unbearable to think that those early edition of the classic travel books of Thompson and Burchell are now just ashes, as are the maps, missionary accounts and linguistic and anthropological publications or typewritten research papers I have been using during the past 15 years. Still, rare as they were, many of those items can gradually be replaced, while the archival materials that have mostly been spared cannot be replaced in any way.

    JE comments:  Appreciate the updates, José Manuel.  If we dive deep in search of a silver lining, I guess we've found one--the destruction could have been far worse.  Are you aware of any "crowd funding" initiative to help with the rescue?  If so, send along the info and I'll put it on WAIS.

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