"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Mar 25, 2015

Wet books!

My library is currently in an older structure. It was a rough winter up here. There were ice dam issues all over the region.

Have you guessed where I'm going yet?

Oh yes. A few weeks ago, we had a leak in the stacks. Although I am by no means trained in book preservation, I thought I'd share the story and lessons learned here in case they're useful to someone else.

First, let's discuss the scope of the problem. We were actually relatively lucky. The water came down the inside of a wall and seeped out starting at the top of a short built-in bookcase 4 or 5 shelves high. It wet the bottom of several oversized books shelved along the top of the bookcase and dripped/leaked down the shelves. The bookcase is only about a foot or 18" wide, so the damage was confined to a relatively narrow area. Most of the water went off the bottom of the bookcase into the carpet, which was soaked through for a couple of feet; a little leaked along the very bottom shelf onto an adjacent shelf and dampened a few books.

My/our initial response upon discovering the leak:
  • Get help. I called to my colleague in the back room and ran upstairs to get a volunteer who was doing a nonessential task.
  • Get the books out of the water, and triage. My colleague and I did a rough sort of books into those that were okay, those that were a little wet, those that were quite wet but possibly savable, and those that were an immediate loss. All told, there were about 20 books that were an obvious loss, and another 30-40 that would need to be dried and evaluated.
  • Preserve what's possible. I ferried the books that were wet-but-savable to the volunteer to get paper towels inserted between the pages. (This is a trick I picked up from friends taking an archival preservation class in grad school. We went through several rolls.) Too-wet-to-save got tossed on a shelf to be inventoried and discarded later. Books that were damp but not wet enough to have to be dealt with immediately also got tossed on a separate shelf, to be dealt with when the wetter ones were done. Books that were wet along the covers under the Mylar got their covers taken off ASAP.
  • Sop up water continuing to leak in and leave paper towels there to absorb additional seepage.
  • Contact facilities.

In the subsequent weeks, I've been:
  • Drying the books initially interleaved with paper towels. We have heat/AC vents at the bottom of several shelves and they provide nice airflow. I've been propping books up in front of them and fanning the pages out, a few at a time, till things are dry. Dried books go under a nice big stack of heavy oversize books to flatten out again, which has been working surprisingly well.
  • Assessing the books that were only damp, and interleaving with paper towels/drying out in front of vents as needed.
  • Creating an inventory of what got wet. Thank goodness for Evergreen, which made this really easy - a volunteer scanned everything into a bucket, then I chose the columns/fields I needed, exported to a .csv, and saved it to Excel. This is very useful for our insurance claim. I could even include the price listed in our ILS for each book - though that isn't always the same as list price, so we're going through Ingram to check for current prices and whether a given book is still available.
  • Still yet to happen: actually going through, book by book, and finalizing discards in the ILS/determining what I'm actually going to replace.

Next post: Lessons learned!