Book Squad 911

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  March 16, 2011

"You put them in a box similar to the ones you would see from Staples . . . then you freeze them." Gilbert's squad carts the books away to one of their temperature-controlled facilities — in the case of the Athenaeum, to Georgetown, MA — then wheels them into a walk-in freezer able to blast-freeze a number of books at once. Blast-freezing books prevents water molecules from distending the paper any further.

Once frozen, Gilbert's team puts the books in a vacuum freeze-dry chamber. "It dries the books through a combination of a little bit of heat and pressure," he says. "You put a vacuum on them and pull the moisture out when it's in its gas phase so no further damage is occurring to the book."

Time is of the essence. "If it's a general-collection book and it wasn't frozen in a day or two, I wouldn't even want to try to freeze-dry it — I would tell them to buy a new book," he says. "If it's a rare book that's worth $5000, I might."

Gilbert also deals with mold, hand-cleaning each affected volume. He does battle with silverfish and, more recently, bed bugs. "If somebody checks out a book and sits in their bed and reads it, that bed bug comes back [to the library], and you've got a bed-bug problem." No matter the bug, he blast-freezes the book to minus-25 degrees Fahrenheit for 48 hours to kill all the eggs.

Though Gilbert has cleaned up after dozens of disasters, the job still gets to him. "Some of the collections that I see are upsetting . . . you know the value and how important they are to people."

Gilbert wishes more institutions were as well-prepared as the Athenaeum. "A very intensive disaster plan makes these situations become manageable," he says.


Massachusetts cultural institutions lead the nation in emergency response because of a few hard lessons. In 1996, a public library in Western Massachusetts burned to the ground. In 1998, a 42-inch water main broke in Copley Square, causing $18 million of damage to the Boston Public Library, wiping out all of their government documents and science reference books.

"The [water pressure] was strong enough that the stanchions holding the stacks were twisted, and the books from that part of the building ended up on the other side of the building in 30 inches of water in the basement," says Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, a preservation specialist who spent a week on the scene. By the time the squad arrived, the books were so waterlogged and swollen, they'd become jammed into their shelves. "We literally were using a crowbar to take one book off the shelf so we could get to the other books. It's scary," says Trinkaus-Randall. "They [the BPL] still haven't recovered."

Libraries under duress got national attention nine years later, when Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf. "It became quite obvious to everyone involved that the Mississippi River went between emergency management and the cultural community," Trinkaus-Randall says.

At the time, he was working as a preservation specialist for the Society of American Archivists. He sat in on weekly conference calls that showed him just how ineffective the Katrina response was. As a result of the hurricane damage, FEMA gave his organization a $2.5 million grant to develop standardized plans to save records in an emergency.

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