On Thursday, December 27 at 9:45 am I received the dreaded call from campus police: “Can someone from Preservation come in to the library?  The sprinkler went off on the fourth floor.”  And a panicked “How long will it take you to get here?”  No more information than sprinkler and fourth floor.  General collection stacks, the Conservation Lab, and Special Collections and Archives are all up on the fourth floor.

When I arrived, there was water pouring off of the side of the building and someone waiting for me at the back door.  I was told it was over Special Collections and I started to panic.  The library was closed for the week and many staff were out of town for the holiday including our conservator.  In Special Collections and our attached classroom, there was standing water (at one point up to 6 inches) and Facilities Planning and Management was already moving playback equipment out of the AV room.  Kara, the dress dummy wearing a 4H dress, was also rescued and moved to the lab.


It was raining over two of the offices and a little in the processing room.  Thankfully, the penthouse, where the sprinkler head burst, is not located over Special Collections stacks or even connected through vents or pipes.  It turns out that a damper collected snow on the slats and froze open causing the temperature to drop in the penthouse.  This would have happened even if the library had been open.  A mechanic was in the building and heard the alarm and campus police received the alert and could determine exactly which sprinkler activated so response was immediate.

Computer equipment and some AV equipment were sent to IT for drying and recovery.  Luckily, all equipment had been completely shutdown all the way to the power strip level and nothing fried which would not have been the case if we had been open and working that day.

Re-housed archives materials

Collection materials and personal items from the offices and processing room were brought to the Conservation Lab.  Books and saturated materials were placed in the freezer since they would require more time and attention.  Thank goodness for archival processing standards and the fact that our Archives staff follow them.  Collection materials were mostly protected by Paige and document boxes that did their job beautifully and kept their contents dry.  Materials were transferred to new folders and boxes; tabs were torn off of old folders and placed in the new folder so that the information could be easily transferred.  Boxes were left open to make sure contents dried.  Damp materials were spread out on blotter and left to air dry.  The air was so dry in the lab, damp materials dried in minutes.

Salvaged office contents

Over the next few days, documents that had been frozen were thawed and air dried quickly.  The next week, books were thawed and inter-leaved (love having our Fisher Scientific freezer in the lab instead of having to run out to the storage building).  By that time the humidity level in the lab was significantly higher and the books were not drying as quickly.  One book in particular was still wet throughout so I tried inter-leaving the new Tech Wipes we purchased and placed it in the press; it was dry and relatively flat the next day!  There was one casualty, a Giada cookbook that could not be inter-leaved because of the clay coating.  It actually air dried on its own and the pages popped apart, but then it started flaking every time the pages were flexed.

Two lessons from this:  1) Never discount the importance of quality housing, and 2) Tech Wipes worked and are worth testing further.


Along with our wishes for a happy new year, we’d also like to say thank you to our readers for making last year such a rewarding one for us.  We appreciate your shared insights and feedback, and thank you for being part of our virtual preservation community.

2013 is already off to an exciting start, beginning with a frozen pipe which burst in the offices of our Special Collections and Archives over break.  Since I was basking in the Arizona sunshine at the time, Hilary will fill you in on the details of that escapade next Tuesday.  We’re also in the midst of our search for the 2013 Lennox Foundation Intern; if you or someone you know is planning to apply, please note the January 17 deadline.

Parks Library, Iowa State University

Parks Library, Iowa State University

As we look ahead to the rest of 2013, are there any favorite topics you would like to see us revisit?  We’ve covered topics as diverse as disaster response, conservation treatments, digitization projects, book and paper arts, commercial binding, reformatting, book reviews, conferences, sustainability, whimsical quizzes, and local preservation events.  Are there topics we’ve never discussed that you wish we would?  Guest bloggers from other departments of the Library from whom you’d like to hear?  Join our conversation!

Wishing you all a productive and fulfilling 2013!

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.


“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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


Water-damaged lab notebook, after treatment.

Do you remember that flood we had a couple of years ago?

Photo by Des Moines Register staff

The seemingly boring pile of blotter below is actually the last of the thousands of plans that we took out of the basement of Facilities, Planning and Management and treated after the flood. We’re just waiting for some storage tubes to arrive before they go to Special Collections.

Finished plans between blotter

What have we learned over the last two years and two months?

Melissa learned how to put theory into practice by organizing an impressive and creative salvage response.

Drying operation in the mechanical room.

Our newly hired student workers learned about the lab and each other while washing sheet after sheet of plans on Mylar. Amazingly, two of three are still will us.

Ashely, Ben and Hope

And as you have read over the course of the years, I have learned quite a bit about architectural drawings, the Iowa State campus and more than I’d like to know about tape removal. I could say that I learned how wonderfully helpful everyone in the lab is but I knew that before the flood. Still, many thanks to everyone for lending a hand when needed, because as you can see from the photo below a conservator often needs a third hand.

A third hand would be helpful right now

Mostly what we learned is something we already knew: responding to a disaster is hard and time consuming work. Taking steps to prevent a potential disaster is well worth the time. I will leave you with one final photo and a question. What’s in your basement?

Flood residue left after washing

You might remember my Frankenplan post. I needed to line a large blueprint that was in pieces. I temporarily joined all the parts using bridge repairs along the front so that I could apply a lining on the back of the plan.

Overall, I was pleased with the result, but bridge repairs on such a large piece are not perfect. They are time consuming to apply and remove, and things can shift during the lining process.

I was wondering if it would be possible to do such a repair without applying the bridge repairs. I went to my pile of flood-damaged plans and found a plan with very little information near the tears, which gave me a little wiggle room if the repair was less than perfect.

The first step was to lightly humidify all the pieces. I then heavily sprayed a large piece of Melinex with deionized water and laid the largest piece down. I inserted the small wedge piece in first.

The great thing about using Melinex as the support was that I could flip it up to see if the piece was fitted in correctly.

The small piece went in quite nicely, so I took a deep breath and tried the other half of the plan.

I slowly butted the edges together.

Once I was satisfied that the tear was lined up as well as possible, I applied the lining. (Sorry I don’t have a photo, but you can refer to the Frankenplan post to see the general process.)

The end result was this, and overall I was quite pleased. You can still see the line of the repair, but that is to be expected. The plan had originally been roughly repaired with a long strip of packing tape applied to the back. The edges of the tear had been abraded with use.  Then the plan survived a flood, so I knew not to expect perfection.

Here are a few observations in case you are thinking of trying this at home.

1. Decide if you can live with imperfection. In this case, I did not have to worry about losing any information if the joins were not spot on.

2. Know your materials. I was also lucky in working with a relatively sturdy paper that I’ve spent a lot of time with in a wet state. I would have been much more hesitant to do this with a more fragile paper that I didn’t have experience with.

3. When I say spray the Melinex generously, I mean spray and spray again. I knew that Melinex was pretty magnetic, but I was surprised by how wet things needed to be to get even a bit of movement. Keep a towel handy.

4. I only lightly humidified the pieces before positioning them because I didn’t want the added moisture to weaken the paper too much. (As a conservator, I try not to tear things further while working on them.) Once I got the pieces down I needed to spray again to equalize the moisture front and back.

What do you think?

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!

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.

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