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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 18, 2003 | Vol. 32 No. 42
Restoration Begins on Wet Books
8,500 volumes from Peabody Library are now resting in a large freezer

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

In what has become a tale of two cities, the nearly 8,500 recently water-damaged historic books from the university's George Peabody Library continue their restoration process in an upstate New York facility, while back in Baltimore the Mount Vernon Place library itself is undergoing a large-scale dehumidification procedure in an effort to "stabilize" the environment.

The book damage resulted from a blocked drain in an air conditioning system that caused a dispersion of condensed water across the ceiling and down through five floors of the library earlier this month. From the sixth floor to the second floor, the stacks of tightly packed books on the eastern side of the library were subjected to a "slow and steady trickling of water" for what is speculated to have been a two-day period, according to Sonja Jordan, director of preservation for the Sheridan Libraries, which encompass the Milton S. Eisenhower Library and its collections at the Albert D. Hutzler Reading Room in Gilman Hall, the John Work Garrett Library at Evergreen House and the George Peabody Library at Mt. Vernon Place.

Library maintenance staff uncovered the accident in the early morning of Aug. 4. The library has been closed for renovations since June 2002 and is scheduled to be reopened in February 2004.

Once the source of the water seepage was identified, university staff moved quickly to assess the extent of the damage and to save the books from further harm. Jordan said that most of the visible damage was to the books' spines and tails because some of the water had puddled on the shelves, causing it to be wicked up from the bottom of the books.

Document Reprocessors, a book and document restoration company in Middlesex, N.Y., was contacted and quickly dispatched two freezer trucks to Baltimore. The damaged volumes were packed into boxes, shrink-wrapped and loaded onto the trucks for overnight delivery to the company's treatment facility, which is near Rochester.

The damaged books include works from the 17th to 19th centuries, including titles such as the 11-volume Works of Hannah Moore (1853), an 18th-century two-volume set of The Greek New Testament and a first edition of James Baldwin's The Book-Lover: A Guide to the Best Reading (1885).

Currently, the distressed books are being stored in a large freezer. On Aug. 14, when the power went out in the Rochester region, the books were not impacted because the freezers operate on diesel fuel for just such an emergency.

In an attempt to mitigate most of the water damage, they will next be subjected to vacuum freeze-drying, a controlled and patented method of sublimation that prevents the physical distortions associated with air drying.

Jordan said that the drying process is anticipated to take a couple of weeks, and she expects that all of the affected books will be usable for scholarly purposes once again, although some books will show signs of water damage and be downgraded in collector's value.

Due to the volume of books damaged, however, Jordan said it is hard to know precisely when the books will return.

"Because we want to be able to return them to the shelf exactly as they were pulled, we will wait until the freeze-drying process is done for all 8,000-plus volumes," said Jordan, adding that the books were packed in the same order as they rested on the stacks. "All I can say for certain is that we'll bring them home as soon as we can."

The Timonium, Md., disaster restoration firm PBI, formerly known as Popowski Bros., last week began work to remove the ambient humidity from the library by pumping in warm, dry air through massive hoses.

"We have to do this; otherwise you get mold growth and a variety of other problems," Jordan said. "Once we removed the items at risk, our goal was to bring the environment back to a stable condition, and that is what [PBI is] doing now. They are lowering the relative humidity, which was in the upper 60s but now is in the low 50s. For a mixed collection of book types such as this, we are looking to achieve a temperature between 68 and 72 degrees and a relative humidity from 35 to 50 percent."

Jordan said her staff have performed random sample tests on the rest of the library's collection, and those books, she said, are "all responding beautifully."

Jordan, who joined Johns Hopkins on July 1, said it's been a very eventful beginning to her second month of work. Once word of the accident appeared in her friends' and family's local papers, Jordan said she began to get flooded with calls.

"They all said, 'Welcome aboard. We're glad you were there,' " said Jordan, whose 18-year professional career includes being head of special collections and preservation at the Chicago Public Library and at the University of Notre Dame.

Jordan said that the Johns Hopkins staff's handling of the event was a text-book response.

"Given that no accident is a happy situation, considering what could have happened, I'm extremely happy and feel fortunate that the water damage sustained was not larger, because it easily could have been," she said. "All the necessary departments, units and individuals worked together very well to bring all the parts together and deal with this incident in a timely, efficient fashion. I don't think there was any lost time at all. I'm very happy with the response; it allowed us to grow and practice what we preach."

The Peabody Library was founded in 1857 by philanthropist George Peabody and has been part of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library since 1982. Renowned for its architectural interior, the library has an atrium-style reading room with five tiers of ornamental cast-iron balconies that rise dramatically to the skylight 61 feet above the floor. Its noncirculating collection contains approximately 300,000 volumes, most of which date from the 18th to the early 20th centuries.

Maintaining the provisions of Peabody's original gift, the library is open to the public.


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