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"Water, Water Everywhere . . ."

The season of slushy roof tops and ice-clogged drains arrived early this year. While the weather may have inspired Harvard students to contemplate skiing—or spending the December holidays in warmer climates—90 members of Harvard's library community gathered to consider methods for disaster planning in a December 1 conference entitled, "Water, Water Everywhere: Good Decision-making When Salvaging Water-Damaged Collections." The one-day symposium, presented by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), was sponsored by the Weissman Preservation Center in the Harvard University Library (HUL), the Preservation and Imaging Department in the Harvard College Library (HCL), and the University Library Professional Development Committee. Beth Doyle, Conservator for Special Projects in HUL and HCL, worked with CCAHA staff to plan the event.

Jan Merrill-Oldham, Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian in the Harvard University Library and the Harvard College Library, introduced the program and summarized new and existing initiatives for disaster planning and recovery across Harvard's libraries. Information about the Library Collections Emergency Team (LCET), the 24-hour telephone hotline at 617-240-2500 that it staffs, and the basic steps that need to be taken in an emergency are posted on

Glen Ruzicka, rare book conservator and Director of CCAHA, presented the morning lecture, focussing on disaster planning as well as assessment and recovery of books and archival materials. Referring to the very different roles and responsibilities that must be assumed in emergency situations, Ruzicka stated, "The major reason to develop a disaster plan is to get a grasp on the resources in your institution, and to know your capacity to respond to a sudden change in mission."

The first response to a water emergency is to contact the people with the authority and means to stop the flow of water and to evaluate the building's condition. Evaluation of damage to collections can begin once access to the building is permitted. "Give yourself time to make a thorough assessment of the problem before you begin a recovery," said Ruzicka. "There is a real urge to do something, but you will need to fight that urge a little bit. Time can be lost if you fail to determine the true scale of an event." Ruzicka urged that care be taken to determine the "perimeter of the incident," that is, the boundaries demarcating damaged from undamaged collections.

Priorities for disaster recovery, and the methods used to dry affected materials, will depend upon a range of criteria including their value to the institution and the type and extent of the damage incurred. Ruzicka concluded his lecture with an overview of drying techniques and strategies for books and archival collections, including air drying and freezing. Each drying method has its strengths and weaknesses, and it is best to consult with a trained conservator to determine which method or methods should be used.

Betty Fiske, paper conservator at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, and an adjunct professor of paper conservation in the art history department at the University of Delaware, lectured in the afternoon on the assessment and recovery of water-damaged art on paper as well as photographs. Planning for a disaster that might involve these types of materials is similar to planning for the protection and salvage of books.

"With art on paper and early artistic photographs, more emphasis is placed on the subtleties of aesthetics. For this reason materials do not lend themselves to mass processing. The best [recovery] approach needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis," Fiske said. Assessing damage to art on paper and photographs depends largely on the medium's vulnerability to water. Media such as pastel, charcoal, writing inks, and water-based printing inks can be very sensitive to water and humidity, producing a variety of damage including bleeding of the media, tide lines, and mold formation. "Even media usually unaffected by water may become susceptible due to age or previous damage," said Fiske. "In cases where the ink, paint, or other medium is not affected, the paper itself can be compromised."

The recovery of materials is a three-step process involving their removal from the site, stabilization, and damage reduction. The last stage may be an ongoing exercise long after the event is over. "The physical removal of items from the disaster site often begins with the closest or most accessible material. From there the most valuable items can be removed, followed by the least damaged and the most damaged items respectively. Often the collections about which you are most concerned are those that you can't get at," said Fiske. "Nonetheless, when you enter an area strewn with debris, take a systematic approach to it."

Recovery strategies will depend upon the media, degree of wetness, time factors, and the extent and type of damage incurred. Treatment may be carried out immediately while the item is wet or it may be safe or necessary to wait until later. The approach is best determined through collaboration between curator and conservator.

Overall, the emphasis of the seminar was on being prepared. To help mitigate the disastrous effects of water on library and archives collections, determine recovery priorities, write a disaster plan, stock recovery supplies, and practice recovery techniques.

Questions regarding disaster planning or recovery? Please contact the Weissman Preservation Center at 495-8596.

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.