Friday, September 18, 2009


Here's what we didn't have to do this year at Rice University's Fondren Library, where I work. At least, we won't have to do this unless a late-season hurricane strikes in the next few weeks. We didn't have to salvage wet books. However, we were prepared, with plans, salvage supplies, and even a disaster demonstration. In a dire little way, the demo was fascinating.

At one point in the demonstration, the presenter, a book preservation specialist named Andy, dunked a book in a bucket of water. Everyone in the room winced. Andy explained that it was a withdrawn (meaning, pretty darn useless) book and of course the point was to show us how to save a wet book. But still there was that collective wince. Library people really, really don't like seeing books hurt.

In this part of the world, though, it happens, sometimes on a devastating scale. In Hurricane Katrina, the Tulane University Library lost 90% of the collection. After Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, the University of Houston Law Library was devastated. It was underground and it flooded to the top.

Some years ago Fondren Library was hit hard by a tropical storm. The art library, which at the time was unfortunately located in the basement, flooded. The clay-coated pages of fine art books are readily ruined by water. That time, truck-loads of wet books were rushed down Interstate 45 to NASA-JSC and put in the space vacuum chamber: the same chamber where the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module had been tested. Freeze-drying in a vacuum is one of the only ways to save a soggy art book.

You have to act fast. Fondren Library has First Responders ready to come as soon as the building is declared safe and power restored. Andy demonstrated how to interleave wet pages with paper-towels, wrap the books in newsprint, pack them into boxes, number the boxes and record the numbers in a log.

As Andy went through his demonstration, he showed us the contents of one of several React Paks stashed in strategic locations in the Library. These Paks have all kinds of stuff in them, even a mop in three pieces that you clip together and a collapsible pail. That React Pak had so many items coming out that the effect was like a clown car disgorging clowns. While he was at it, Andy, who is a broad-shouldered former Navy man, demonstrated the sailor's mop twirl. If there's anybody who knows how to mop decks, it's sailors!

In this digital age we live in, a lot about libraries is changing. At one extreme, there is reported to be a library in New England that has divested itself of all of its physical books. And yet, though much has changed, librarians still love books and do everything in their power to preserve them. When flooding strikes any library anywhere, people who work there are willing to wade in and work their hearts out salvaging books. Long live libraries and their people who love books!

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