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.

1091MapThis month’s 1091 Project highlights the role of student workers in the Conservation Lab.  Quite honestly, many university conservation departments wouldn’t be nearly as productive without these unsung workhorses of conservation. Often the most tedious tasks fall to the students: they make enclosures, tip-in loose pages, surface clean, and vacuum moldy items.  Yet they perform these tasks efficiently and cheerfully, and miraculously, they keep showing up for work.

When I interned at the Conservation Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, many of the students working in the lab were also studying in the GSLIS program.  We don’t have a library school here at ISU, so our students come from other departments. Of our current four student employees, one is a graduate student pursuing her MA in History (although she started working for us as an undergraduate Anthropology major), one is an Anthropology major, one is a Design major, and one is a Elementary Education major.

Hannah makes spine title labels for tux boxes.

Hannah makes spine title labels for tux boxes.

Our students tackle a variety of projects according to their handskills and experience.  Hannah just started with us this semester, and she has learned to surface clean, insert tip-ins, sew on pamphlet binders, and construct tux boxes and other four-flap wrappers.  We have a shelf full of items needing other types of boxes which will be next on her plate.

Devin has been with us for about a year, but already had excellent handskills from her experience in the College of Design.  She performs many mid-level treatments such as custom portfolio construction, double-fan adhesive bindings, and shield bindings.  Devin divides her work schedule between Conservation and the Preservation Services unit of the Preservation Department.

Ashley clamps down adhesive bindings in a book press.

Ashley clamps down adhesive bindings in a book press.

Ashley and Hope have both worked in the lab for two and a half years.  Their handskills have developed beautifully during this time, and both are now capable of executing more advanced book repairs such as rebacks, new cases, re-cases, and “full repairs,” which they tackle when the more general student treatment workflow slows down at various points throughout the year.

Hope repairs a volume of color samples.  And yes, she knows that our volunteer Martha is giving her mutant bunny ears.  She's good-natured like that.

Hope repairs a volume of color samples. And yes, she knows that our volunteer Martha is giving her mutant bunny ears. She’s good-natured like that.

When we hire new students, we look for hobbies or work experience that show evidence of good eye-hand coordination, but we don’t expect them to have any prior bookbinding or conservation experience. The typical student workflow includes materials preparation (such as cutting spine inserts and hinging endpapers), surface cleaning, box-making, tip-ins, page mending, pamphlet binding, double-fan adhesive binding, shield binding, vacuuming mold, and small-scale deacidification using a compressor and Book Keeper’s spray unit.  The students have also been called upon to assist during disaster recovery.  In fact, when Hope and Ashley first started working in the lab, they spent a month washing Mylar architectural plans which had been damaged during the 2010 Ames flood.

We know our students’ first and foremost goal is to receive a good education here at ISU.  We appreciate being just one of their many priorities, and have been impressed by their reliability, their cheerful hard work, and their diligence in developing their handskills.  We couldn’t run the lab without them!

Don’t forget to stop by Preservation Underground to hear about the student technician experience in the Conservation Lab of Duke University Libraries.

A couple of weeks ago, we were informed by the Stacks Department that we would be receiving a couple of shelves of books that had a mystery substance splattered on them. “Oh, great,” we thought, “what could it be this time?” Working in an academic library, you just never know what you are going to come across. When the books arrived we quickly realized that there were quite a bit more than originally thought – 276 volumes, to be exact, and most had the strange substance splattered on them. It was reddish orange in color – what could it be? We had been told that there was also a spot of the mystery substance on the carpet in the aisle where these books were located. Was it a cup of tomato soup a patron had dropped? Too light to be blood – thank goodness! What could it be?

mystery substance

Since our student workers were gone for the day, I was the lucky one who got to clean these lovelies. I donned my latex gloves, grabbed some damp paper towels, and went to work cleaning what I could off of the books. The books with slick covers were very easy to clean, but those with cloth covers were not. There is still evidence of the splatters on those with cloth covers, as well as on items whose text blocks were spattered.

Twice as I was cleaning, I swore I got a whiff of BBQ sauce. That’s it! That’s what it was! Some student thought it would be fun to stomp on a BBQ sauce packet (easily found at The Hub next door) and spray BBQ sauce all over the books, leaving a nice spot on the floor. I was very proud that I had figured out the mystery. My coworkers agreed that was likely what happened. Oh, but wait, a couple of days later it was revealed that my theory was in fact wrong! What was it, you ask? Well, it was actually an older sprinkler head that was leaking rusty water! It was leaking onto the carpet and when the carpet was saturated enough, it started splattering up onto the surrounding books.

I haven’t heard an update ,but I am assuming the leaky sprinkler head has been taken care of, since we haven’t received any more books with rusty water splattered on them. It just goes to show you never know what is going to enter the lab on any given day. Even though we may cringe at some of the items, it really does make our job quite interesting.

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.

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?

« Previous PageNext Page »