Every library that participates in interlibrary lending has experienced some damage to collection materials at some point in time. There are, of course, the usual signs of damage we expect in circulating collections like beverage stains, something sticky on the covers, and dog chew. Then there is the damage caused during transit. We have received books in their packaging that look as if they have been run over, others that were wet, and once we received a book soaked in meat juices. But considering the amount that this library lends and borrows, the percentage of damaged materials is low.
Breaking news: A USPS truck from Ames, Iowa headed to the Des Moines, Iowa USPS sorting facility caught on fire on Interstate 35. The good news is that the driver walked away uninjured. The bad news is that ISU Library had twenty-four packages on the truck. The packages contained books being interlibrary loaned to other libraries as well as books being returned to various libraries.
When I heard the news, I was a little surprised since I had never heard of a mail truck catching on fire. I wanted more details but could not find information on the USPS site or any local media so I simply used a third-party federated search engine (yes, I Googled it). There were more mail trucks catching on fire across the country than I would have guessed, and these hits did not even include the Ames/Des Moines fire at the time of my search.
The fire occurred on a Tuesday and the first few packages arrived back at the library on Friday. The items were still in what was left of their packaging and wrapped in plastic. Some were total losses including an old pocket guide to France and a book on Camp Dodge (local history), while a handful were just a little singed, sooty, and damp. Interestingly, one book came back with severely burnt packaging but the book itself was only damp; the subject was witchcraft. More books trickled in over time, some were actually delivered to the receiving library; some libraries immediately returned books to us and other were told to toss them and we would pay to replace them. Through all of this, the books remained damp and tightly wrapped in plastic. Surprisingly, nothing was moldy. I am still perplexed since it is summer in the Midwest. USPS response to the fire and water damage was to spread out all items on wire racks, with halogen lights on the materials (I’m assuming for heat and/or UV exposure) and fans blowing. There was no mention of dehumidifiers running. Then packages were hand sorted and wrapped in plastic. Their quick response must have prevented the mold; although, I still do not understand how the damp books wrapped in plastic that we received a week later did not show signs of mold, not that I am complaining.
For ISU materials, treatment decisions were easy, and books were air-dried and covers removed. The trickier decisions were what to do with other library’s materials. I thought about what my reaction would be if one of our books was returned rebound or repaired without my approval, and decided that 1) I might question their judgment and ability to properly treat materials, and 2) my level of acceptable damage that I can live with may be very different from theirs, so I tended toward recommending replacements if the books was relatively new and treatment if it was just a little stained and could be air-dried. Our head of Resource Sharing communicated with all of the libraries affected by this fire, but none of them were very forthcoming on whether or not they wanted us to treat their materials or simply pay for replacements. While waiting for responses, these books were also air-dried and flattened.
The lab started to smell like a bar-b-que because of the charred books. The fumigation trashcan was set-up with Gonzo odor removal bags, the books were placed inside on grates, and the trashcan sealed tightly. After a few days, the Gonzo was replaced and after several more days the books had a less strong smoky odor, but still noticeably smoky none-the-less.
This incident is really making me rethink interlibrary lending of any Special Collections and University Archives materials. In general, we only lend reference materials and University Archives books that are replaceable, but books in the Archives are our faculty publications which are more valuable to us than they are be to other libraries that have them in their circulating collections. Most, if not all, of these titles are available through other libraries, so I do not feel bad sending the request on to the next lending library.