Fire


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.

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Remains of library books damaged in the USPS truck fire.

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.
Total loss triptic3

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.

minor damage

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.

Damaged books arranged in the fumigation trashcan.

Damaged books arranged in the fumigation trashcan.

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.

Recently, there was a small fire in one of the research labs on campus.  Fortunately, the sprinkler system deployed and Ames firefighters responded quickly and effectively, so no one was injured and the building was saved.  We have a saying in the preservation field: “Every disaster is a water disaster.”  O.k., so that’s not always literally true, as tornadoes and earthquakes wouldn’t necessarily involve water (though they might!)  However, in the case of fires, if there is anything left to save, then it will likely be sooty, dirty… and wet.

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“Wringing out” a water-saturated notebook with a press-board in the sink.

Such was the case with a dozen or so lab notebooks that were brought to us late in the day of the fire.  All of the notebooks were wet, but some were completely saturated, dripping in rivulets, the covers mushy, the textblocks bloated.  Some of them were also very dirty, covered in grit and soot.  We quickly separated the notebooks into salvage categories and got to work.  The notebooks, as part of the active research of the lab, could not be spirited away to our Wei T’o Freeze Dryer for its usual two-month freeze-drying cycle, so we decided to blot, airdry, and interleave instead.

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Interleaving pages with paper towels.

The merely wet notebooks were interleaved with paper towels, a time-consuming but effective low-tech solution.  One notebook was just damp, so we stood it on end in front of a gentle fan to air dry.  The gritty items were first briefly rinsed in clean water.  The most bloated of the lot were “wrung out” by pressing them under a board in the washing sink.  About half of the notebooks were so saturated that we had to disbind them by removing their adhesive covers and then prying out the staples along their gutter edge.  The freed pages were then careful separated, one by one, and laid out to dry between sheets of blotter under boards and weights.

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Disbinding a completely saturated notebook.

The next morning, the interleaving process began all over again, as wet interleaving was removed and fresh, dry paper towels inserted.  Likewise, fresh blotter replaced the damp blotter in the stacks of disbound pages.  We continued to monitor the materials in this way for another day or two.  As each notebook or stack of pages approached the stage of being almost dry, but still very slightly damp, we put them in books presses to flatten out the pages as best we could.

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A few of the pages had been written in felt-tip pen, which bled considerably, but the majority of the notebooks were written in ballpoint pen, which remained fairly stable.  In all, we salvaged over 2,000 notebooks pages of handwritten data.

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When the materials were dry and flattened, we rebound them simply and cost-effectively by post-binding through the 3-ring binder holes of the pages and covers.  We used 20-point Bristol board to replace a few of the back cover boards which had been discarded.  The results are not “pretty,” but the important information contained in the notebooks was saved, and the materials are now stable.

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Water-damaged lab notebook, after treatment.

Mindy Moe thought this might be a cigarette burn caused by some hot ash or a cigarette itself falling into the book.  However it happened, the burn caused a loss of text and image, so we got ahold of another copy of this book via Interlibrary Loan and made a replacement page by scanning the unmarred page in the borrowed book.  We then cut out the damaged page in our copy of the book, leaving a stub, and tipped in the replacement page — a lot of work for one moment of carelessness.  Please don’t burn books!

Albin Clothing Store Records, ca. 1890s.

Recently, I’ve been working on the Albin Clothing Store records housed in ISU Library Special Collections & Archives.  The records, which date from the 1890s, survived a fire which left them covered with surface dirt and soot.  Most of the documents are folded, but too fragile to unfold without cracking or tearing.  We are dry cleaning, humidifying and flattening, mending, and rehousing the documents so they will be in a usable condition.

Albin Clothing Store Recrods: partially humidified documents in the humidity chamber.

The records include letters, receipts, and invoices, many of which are still in their mailing envelopes with original postage.  While pre-paid, adhesive, postage stamps were first introduced around 1847, their use began in earnest only during the second half of the century.  A law passed in 1856 mandated that postage must be pre-paid; prior to that time, recipients usually paid for postage upon delivery of the letter.

According to Andrew K. Dart, 2 cents was the rate for mailing a 1-ounce (or less) letter in the 1890s, and all of the stamped correspondence in the Albin Clothing Store records are at the 2-cent rate.  Most prevalent in the collection are carmine 2-cent stamps of Washington’s profile.  The engraving for this stamp was based on a bust of Washington by the French neoclassical sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon.

2-cent Washington profile stamp, carmine, ca. 1890.

2-cent Washington profile stamp, green.

Commemorative 2-cent stamp: the Landing of Columbus, purple-maroon, from the painting by Vanderlyn, ca.1893.

The postal marking below is not an adhesive postage stamp, but rather, a pre-printed stamped envelope, one form of “postal stationery.”  Postal stationery includes any envelope, wrapper, postcard, or other sheet that has been marked with an imprinted stamp showing the amount of postage that was pre-paid.  Stamped envelopes first debuted in the U.S. circa 1853.   This 2-cent example depicts the first Postmaster General of the United States, Benjamin Franklin.

The nineteenth-century postage in this collection is incidental to the significance of these records for ISU Archives; however, I always enjoy finding unexpected historical treasures like this.  It might be a lock of hair in an old family bible, or postage stamps, or a calling-card tucked into the pages of a volume of poetry, but there are tiny tokens of our history and our cultural traditions to be found everywhere.  It’s nice to be able to slow down occasionally to appreciate them.