Book Squad 911

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  March 16, 2011


FIRE AND WATER

Although the broken pipe was the worst water leak in the Athenaeum's long history — causing $100,000 worth of damage — Reid-Cunningham says the library ended up being relatively lucky.

Reid-Cunningham works in a large, airy room lined with long tables upon which he tends to books and maps and plans. At the entrance, a number of antique mallets are arranged by size on the top of a bookshelf. Reid-Cunningham's office, adjacent to the conservation room, looks out directly onto Paul Revere's grave.

On his handsome wood desk rests a black three-ringed binder, labeled "Disaster Plan." This 40-page document helped spare the library from a worse fate. When Reid-Cunningham assumed his post at the Athenaeum eight years ago, it didn't exist.

"It's kind of common for institutions to put it off," he explains. "It's not the most pressing thing to do. Most people, deep down, think that nothing like this is going to happen, and it's hard to allocate time and money to a hypothetical when you have other real problems to deal with . . . It's actually pretty simple, but it's thinking about stuff that people in libraries really don't want to think about."

The plan takes on fire and water. The first of these is the most treacherous threat. "You're better off with wet books than burned books," he says. "Even if the paper is singed, there's very little you can do to stabilize it."

Water damage, though less grievous, is far more pervasive. All conservators are trained extensively in dealing with sodden books. When Reid-Cunningham trained as a bookbinder, his professor aimed a hose at a stack of books and let the students go. He got his chance to use this training while working for the Frances Loeb Library at the Harvard Design School in the mid-'80s, when a plumber cut off a pipe and left the building. "It was a single, dumb mistake," he says, "but that's all you need."

The plan Reid-Cunningham devised when he assumed his post at the Athenaeum deals extensively with water. "If you see water, it tells you what phone numbers to call," he says. "A lot of times, people do things to make it worse." What should a librarian do if his computer gets wet? Turn it off. If a bookshelf gets wet, people feel compelled to turn the books upside down, making the water spread through them, Reid-Cunningham says. The plan advises against that.

The two-person Athenaeum conservation team can handle a few wet books in-house — the conservation room is equipped with an advanced air-conditioning system that can adjust relative humidity to keep mold at bay. They can dry wet books with blotting paper or spread them open and use fans.

"There are standard supplies that we have on hand to respond to [water damage]: dehumidifiers, fans, sheets of plastic, and tape and scissors to cut them up; absorbent pads that can be used for leaking water; and absorbent socks to contain spills," he says.

The Athenaeum's emergency team used all of these supplies to staunch the damage as they waited for Gilbert to arrive. He showed up with a crew of eight within two hours, sucked up all the standing water with a truck-mounted extraction machine, loaded the wet books onto palettes and into their trucks and drove them away to their warehouse in Georgetown.

Mere hours after the pipe burst, the water was gone, the books were stable, and the building was dry. Thanks to planning, everyone was out of there by midnight.

Eugenia Williamson can be reached at ewilliamson@phx.com.

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