Preservation team at Emory University's libraries ready for disasters and emergencies

Published 09-24-2013

Photo credit: Myron McGhee, courtesy Robert W. Woodruff Library.

The preservation team provides disaster response not only at Emory's libraries but Emory offices and buildings, departmental libraries, faculty offices and in the community. This is an image from one of the events the team responded to: a major mold outbreak in a library.

September is Emergency Preparedness Month – as every month should be – and the preservation team at Emory Library and Information Technology Services wants the campus community to know they are ready for nearly any disaster or emergency that threatens the university’s books, collections and records.

When it began in 1986, the preservation office at Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library was one of the first in a library in the Southeast. The preservation team is composed of collections conservator Ann Frellsen and conservation technicians Julie Newton and Kirsten Wehner. They work frequently with rare materials from the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) and Pitts Theology Library, so they are particularly concerned with keeping those collections protected, but they also work to keep the entire Emory Libraries collection safe, including materials at its storage library.

Preservation team members are specialists in mold, water damage, and pest management (they can even identify bug droppings). The three regularly attend seminars and are trained in using respirators and protective gear for mold removal. They also monitor the temperature, dew point and relative humidity in critical collection areas such as MARBL and Pitts.

Having an in-house preservation team at Emory is an enormous benefit to the university.

“We know the collections here at Emory: We know their curators and stewards, and where their most important holdings are located,” Newton says. “We pay attention to the spaces that house these collections, vigilant for signs of small problems which might develop into disasters. And if we need to, we can respond to disasters big and small, from salvage to repair.”

The team members worked on the aftermath of what they call the “Labor Day flood” in 2008, when a fire system valve burst in a utility closet on the sixth floor of the Woodruff stack tower over the holiday weekend. Even though it was discovered in a relatively short time, water leaked down into the fifth floor, then the fourth floor, wetting hundreds of books on the shelves. The team grouped the books according to the level of wetness – some books needed to be placed in a special drying freezer, while many other books were set up and fanned out in the lounge areas of each floor in the stack tower, with fans and dehumidifiers running nearby. They were able to save all of the books, many of which subsequently showed no signs of water damage thanks to the triage procedures the team follows.

“These things always seem to happen over a weekend or a holiday,” Frellsen says with a laugh.

The team provides disaster response not only at Emory’s libraries but Emory offices and buildings, departmental libraries and faculty offices, as well as out in the community. “They were quite heroic when a major water pipe burst in Bowden Hall several years ago,” says Ginger Smith, the libraries’ director of external affairs. “They were very helpful with faculty members who had library books and personal books in their offices.”

The preservation team has had many experiences with mold treatment. Team members responded to a mold disaster in a library on a Friday afternoon in July 2009, when a patron requested a book from a rarely used collection in an area of the library not often frequented. The book, as well as others in the collection, was thick with mold on the outside, which had spread to the interior. “We got everybody out of that area, and the room was quarantined,” Frellsen says. “Only people trained in wearing protective gear were allowed in.” It took about five weeks to get the books back to a mold-free state.

The preservation office has an online disaster and response manual that covers specific action based on severity of mold or water damage; types of papers, maps and books affected; methods of drying or mold removal, and other details. The team has emergency supplies at the ready that include plastic drop cloths, disposable gloves and masks, fans and extension cords, waxed paper and buckets, and even respirators for use in mold situations.

Maintaining a good relationship with various university departments is essential, particularly the Environmental Health and Safety Office (which provides training for the use of personal protective equipment such as respirators) and the facilities management department. “They know when we request the industrial dehumidifiers, we need them right away,” Frellsen says.

The Emory Libraries’ preservation team is a member of Atlanta HERA (Heritage Emergency Response Alliance), a coalition of local institutions that maintain archives, whose members share information and assistance during times of disaster and emergencies.

That alliance has given the Emory preservation office experience in dealing with other kinds of disasters; for instance, team members assisted with the cleanup and preservation of the newspaper archives of the Atlanta Daily World, which lost most of its roof in March 2008 when a tornado hit downtown Atlanta and the Sweet Auburn historic district.

And about those insects . . . Silverfish are one of the prime enemies to paper, but the preservation team has dealt with more cringe-worthy situations. In the summer of 2012, there was a roach infestation in a room on the first floor of the Briarcliff campus’s main building, where important university archive records were being stored temporarily. (Sometimes bugs also turn up in deliveries of regular materials or archive collections, whether from another state or another country, making for an unpleasant surprise.) With the preservation team on the case, the documents were isolated and treated for six weeks before they were admitted into archive shelving. The team performed an oxygen scavenging treatment – they removed the documents from the infested boxes, and vacuum-packed them in bags with packets that absorbed oxygen to kill the adult roaches and eggs – then the team vacuumed everything out.

While it’s not a glamorous job, working in preservation and conservation is a fascinating field, and the preservation team at the Emory Libraries is ready to handle the aftermath of whatever disaster or emergency comes up.

To contact the preservation team for advice about a mold, water, or other preservation problem, email Frellsen at ann.frellsen@emory.edu

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