Written by Jim Wilcox, Preservation Services Unit.

These are some things I probably should have taken care of 25 years ago, when that water line froze, and then leaked once it thawed out.  This is artwork I did 30 or so years ago (1980-1983), when I was working for Collegiate Pacific in Ames.  Collegiate started out in Ames and made the first Cy mascot costume, as well as stuffed animals for many different colleges, imprinted shirts, pennants, blankets, and banners.  They had done some work for the military during World War II, and later added plants in Roanoke, Virginia, and California.  The Ames Historical Society is currently working on a video history of the company.

I thought the stuff was dry when I put it in the portfolio and boxed it up, but I guess it wasn’t dry enough, as the photos show.  Fortunately, it wasn’t that much of the original artwork and proofs that ended up like this.


This pellon sample (above) was run to make sure the three screenprinting screens in this case all lined up before running the order of shirts.  The few spots of mold along the bottom border could probably best be treated with just a little bit of trimming.


This photocopy of artwork is something we sometimes did in the art department to check things and to help when cutting the rubylithe for the color separations.  This one has a few spots of dark mold and some bleeding ink.


This one is Garfield, on a paper proof like the one sent to the salesman to shop around.  You can see some spots of mold and a nice tideline along the right edge.

With the rain pouring steadily for the past few days, and flood waters rising in Iowa, these old souvenirs of long-ago water damage are a good reminder to get prepared and react quickly.

Evan Anderson started as our new Stacks Manager two months ago and we welcomed him with a roof leak and then a disaster workshop.  Stacks Management is not part of the Preservation Department, but Evan has agreed to be a guest writer on occasion since the departments work so closely together. 

The codex has been around for approximately 2,000 years, or more than a quarter of the time humans have been recording information via writing.  Though codicologists, historians, and other scholars debate exactly why it quickly and largely superseded the scroll as the dominant storage and transmission medium, there is little question of its general durability.  This durability, though, is contingent upon many factors, from the material and construction of the codex, to the conditions it experiences during its lifecycle, to the individuals responsible for preserving and maintaining it.

While this all may be a given, even a codex that is bound well, has sturdy boards, and is kept with care, still faces dangers to its longevity:  disasters happen.  Books, like people, have bad days sometimes.

On April 19 and 20, the Iowa Conservation & Preservation Consortium, with support from an IMLS Connecting to Collections grant, Iowa Library Services, Iowa Museum Services, and State Historical Society of Iowa, held a workshop called “Disasters Happen: Preparation & Response Training” at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids to address these bad days.

In some ways, for me, this workshop came about a week too late.  The Library Storage Building (the University Library’s off-site storage facility) has a particular problem:  the roof leaks.  It leaks, not always, but enough, and though typically in the same spots, water does like to travel, so once in a while a new leak occurs.  Friday, April 13 was one such ‘once in a while.’  Though the leak was neither prodigious in quantity of water nor in size of flow, it was persistent enough to affect several score of books.  With the assistance of Preservation staff, we began the process of drying out damp books, freezing the more profoundly damaged, and, sadly, discarding some irrevocably moldy volumes.  This crash course in a wet book crisis informed my analysis of the “Disasters Happen” workshop.  As information was presented, I considered whether it was something I should have done, or not have done, or, at the very least contemplated, and then considered how I could incorporate these lessons into future crises.  Sadly, I do know for sure that there will be other crises.

Though I had read the procedures at Iowa State and have had coursework that touched on disaster planning and emergency response, the workshop and the pre-workshop experience demonstrated the absolute necessity of not only developing a plan (or plans) and being cognizant of said plans, but also actually executing said plans and not just reacting as the situation unfolds (a tenuous strategy at best, a horrible exponential scaling of a disaster at worst).

In no part of the workshop was this more amply demonstrated than the concluding mock disaster drill.  We had been presented with information on how to handle various media when afflicted by various problems, how to plan, and what to consider, and now forced to put this into work.  The small group I was a part of assigned roles and attempted to execute a plan, when an outsider decided to ‘join’ and take action, damaging materials, violating collection decisions, ignoring input:  in short, generally contributing mostly harm.  Although frustrating at the time, I found this to be highly instructive upon reflection.

Books may be very durable over the long term, but they can face extreme, adverse conditions.  And, as durable as they are, they cannot plan accordingly, so we must.  And helping a codex cope with a catastrophe directly comes from creating, committing to, and carrying out a well-conceived plan.  Doing so will ensure that in a few hundred years when all our newfangled digital technologies are hopelessly obsolete and all their electrons have escaped, our print books can still be accessed for all the thousands of years of knowledge we’ve contained within them.

Good communication and collaboration between Preservation and other library units is key to being able to do our work effectively.  The Stacks Department headed off a major disaster by discovering a minor one in the days before Parks Library shut down for the winter break (December 24-January 4).  The sprinkler system in the stacks sprung a leak at a seam in the overhead pipes, drenching one shelving unit holding about 100 books.  Stacks discovered the problem on a Monday morning walk-through, and immediately called Preservation.

Several of the wettest books, at the center of the shelving unit, were already exhibiting serious mold growth.  The leak had probably occurred over the weekend or at the end of the previous week, since mold growth can start at around 48 hours of extreme moisture.

The Conservation staff sprang into action, wrapping items loosely in waxed paper before packing them into crates for transport to the Library Storage Building, where our grocery case style  “holding freezer” is located.  The books were stored in the holding freezer over the break. 

After break, the books were moved into the Wei T’o Freeze Dryer.  The extreme cold kills the mold spores, but also reduces the warping that moisture can cause in books.  The books are frozen solid and then dried through sublimation as the temperature inside the freeze-dryer is elevated slowly, in cycles, over the course of a few months.  The books are just about dry and ready to come out of the freezer now.  They’ll be individually assessed to determine whether they should be saved and treated or discarded.

We expect to discard about a half a dozen of the moldiest books.  The remainder will be brushed and vacuumed with a HEPA filter under the fume hood.  Where possible, stains will be reduced with vinyl eraser crumbs.  Each book will then be labeled on the inside cover to warn future users that it has been treated for mold.

The first day of spring may be only three weeks away, but Iowa is still in a deep freeze, as you can see in this picture our Conservation Technician, Mindy, shared of her home.

The accumulated snowfall raises concerns about potential water and mold problems in basements and other low-lying storage areas during the spring thaw (see our Spring 2010 Thaw Tips page).  Iowa temperatures have been nearly as low as those inside the Wei T’o freezer this winter — if only we could sublimate all this snow and freeze-dry roads and sidewalks as easily as we do our collection materials.

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