Murphy’s 5th Law of Library Conservation states: “If you have planned to leave work early on a Friday to go out of town for the weekend, then your library will experience a water disaster 15 minutes before you are scheduled to leave.”  This law held true on a recent, rainy Friday here at ISU, when I was alerted to a roof leak in our Library Storage Building just moments before I was planning to head out of town.  Fortunately, the friends I was planning to visit in Chicago are also preservation professionals, so my communications about delaying the trip were met with knowing sighs.

Another Murphy’s Law of Library Conservation might state that a disaster will never occur in the middle of a normal workday when the lab is fully staffed.  On this particular Friday, our Head of Preservation was on vacation out of town, and our technician had already left for the day according to her regular schedule.  Our other technician had retired in July, and we haven’t been able to fill her position due to budgetary constraints.  Our intern doesn’t work on Fridays (plus, she was off negotiating the final details of buying a house), and our Preservation Assistant was still on maternity leave.  Finally, none of our students were working that day, since I had planned to close the lab early for the weekend.  What’s a lone conservator to do in such a situation?

Wet books in the holding freezer

Fortunately, I have wonderful colleagues who are ready to leap into the fray at a moment’s notice.  I arrived at the Library Storage Building to find Lorrie, the building supervisor, her student employee, and an area mechanic from FP&M wrestling with a tarp, hose, and plastic trashcan set-up to contain the roof leak.  Lorrie and her student had already pulled several book carts’ worth of wet books from the shelves at the top of the affected ranges.

After a few phone calls back to the main library, staff members Brad and Matt from Special Collections appeared to clear out the Archives Processing Room for our use.  Kathy, the Head of Stacks, sent over two student workers and then showed up herself, along with David, the Associate Dean of Research & Access (which is the Library division to which Preservation belongs).  Kathy and David brought fans with them, and immediately uttered that magical phrase, “Put us to work.”  Soon after, the main library delivered folding tables, plastic sheeting, extension cords, and over a dozen book carts.

Damp books fanned out in the Archives Processing Room

I performed triage, separating saturated books from those that were damp.  My volunteer preservation team fanned out books, set up fans, and checked the ranges surrounding those underneath the leak for wet books that might have been missed.  Within four hours of Lorrie’s discovery of the leak, over 100 wet books were chilling down in the holding freezer, and another 500 or so damp volumes had been fanned out on tables and book carts, with a half a dozen fans providing gentle, steady circulation.

Thanks to everyone’s quick response, the 500 volumes we fanned out in the Archives Room were dry within days, with no signs of mold.  These volumes have already been reshelved.  The 100 or so frozen volumes have been moved into the Wei T’o Freeze Dryer for defrosting, and a preliminary examination suggests that all the items will be salvageable.

In a different work environment, this minor disaster could easily have turned major, and even resulted in a mold outbreak.  The reduction in damage from this event is entirely thanks to my non-Preservation colleagues, who didn’t say “that’s not my job,” and instead said, “put us to work.”  Thank you all!