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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Staff Train for “Wet Book” Rescue

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  • Photo Houghton Library Assistant Curator John Overholt, right, gingerly hands a waterlogged book to Gregory Finnegan, Associate Librarian for Public Services at Tozzer Library.
  • PhotoAssistant Film Conservator Amy Sloper and Paul M. and Harriet L. Weissman Senior Photograph Conservator Brenda Bernier discuss how to salvage a water-damaged roll of microfilm.
  • PhotoElena Bulat, Photograph Conservator at the Weissman Preservation Center, examines an audio cassette for water damage during a recent “wet books” training session.
  • PhotoThe “wet books” training gives staff experience in a number of techniques used to rescue library materials from water damage.
  • PhotoAn impotant step in the salvage process is to make an accurate record of damaged items. Here, Preservation Review Librarian Allyson Donahoe holds a book while pertinent information is recorded.

May 19, 2011 - Rapid response to water emergencies is essential to minimize damage to library materials. To ensure Harvard staff members are prepared in the event of an emergency, more than 30 library staff recently took part in a training session, co-sponsored by Harvard College Library and the Weissman Preservation Center, on how to salvage water-soaked materials in an array of formats.

“Our goal is to train as many library staff as possible,” said HCL Conservation Services Head Heather Caldwell, who led the session with Jane Hedberg, Senior Preservation Program Officer at the Weissman Center. “This is basically wet books 101 – it’s about making sure people have that foundational knowledge for feeling comfortable dealing with this type of situation.”

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Though colloquially called “wet books” training, the session also included information about treating other formats, from flat paper to photographs to film negatives. This year’s session also included information on treating audio and video tapes, as well as digital media like CDs, DVDs and computer discs.

“Our collections are rich and complex. Therefore, any kind of recovery operations is going to have to be tailored to whatever items are affected, in whatever formats they happen to be in,” Caldwell said. “I think it will be helpful for staff just to know you can perform recovery on those kinds of materials. If I didn’t have training, and I came across a number of wet videotapes, I don’t know that I would understand that those could actually be saved.”

The day-long training session began with staff getting a first-hand look at the damage water can cause by examining approximately 1,000 deaccessioned, donated books, photos and multimedia materials that had been soaked overnight on temporary shelves set up outside Lamont Library. Presentations on techniques used to salvage a variety of formats, including books, flat paper, photographs and audio and video materials followed. In a hands-on session, staff members removed wet materials and transported them to the Lamont Forum Room, where they put their newly-learned skills to work.

“For someone like me, who doesn’t have formal training in conservation, I think the most important part of this program is simply bringing people face-to-face with a simulated emergency, so that if a real one happens, they have some practical experience to draw upon,” said Houghton Library Assistant Curator John Overholt. “I certainly learned plenty, but I think the confidence I gained was even more important. We learned some valuable information about how to deal with a range of non-paper collections... It really made me grateful that at Harvard we have the knowledge and expertise of so many specialists to draw on in a crisis.”

“I definitely feel better prepared to face a wet book situation than I was before this training,” agreed Collections Conservator Todd Pattison. “The initial shock of seeing a lot of wet materials can be daunting and it’s important to learn that much of the material can be salvaged if you know how to act. The most critical lesson to learn from the training is that you don’t have to panic and act immediately. This is particularly important when it comes to personal safety – you do not want to enter a situation until everything has been checked out by Operations. Once the situation has stabilized, the time it takes to get organized or make a quick plan will be much more valuable than the extra minutes you might gain by rushing ahead.”

“I think, ultimately, one of the most valuable parts of the training is just seeing the stacks of wet books, because if staff come across it again, they can say, ‘OK, I’ve seen this before,’ then take a deep breath and collect their thoughts before acting,” Caldwell said.