Steam damaged library holdings

In addition to a growing number of damaged books, last week’s steam leak in Sterling Memorial Library also claimed a valuable collection of newspapers chronicling the Cambodian genocide during the 1970s.

The newspapers and more than 3,000 books were dampened during Saturday night’s leak, and library personnel said they are concerned that irreplaceable items may be permanently damaged, as the Cambodian collection includes the last known copies of newspapers surviving the Khmer Rouge’s censorship campaign. But officials said they are still assessing the damage, and they said they hope preservation treatments and repairs will allow them to fully recover or replace damaged materials. They said they are also reviewing the incident to minimize damage from water and steam in future emergencies.

Besides dampening thousands of volumes on shelves, the steam soaked 88 boxes of material, including books, pamphlets, microfilm and original newspapers. Though librarians hope to recover most, if not all, of the collections, they are concerned by the condition of the Cambodian periodicals, especially because the newspapers had not yet been microfilmed, University Librarian Alice Prochaska said.

“As of now, the material I’m most worried about is the Southeast Asian collection,” she said. “The loss of any material you can’t replace is serious, and we can’t replace the Cambodian newspapers, but we may be able to salvage them.”

Southeast Asia studies professor Quang Phu Van said the damaged periodicals are important both as rare collectors’ items and sources of research into the Khmer Rouge genocide, which resulted in nearly two million deaths.

“Collecting paper articles is valuable in itself, besides a way of preserving information,” he said. “You go back and look at a different newspaper, and you get a different perspective.”

Librarians are continuing to scan shelves for high humidity levels that might pose a threat to the books still stored in the library, Prochaska said. The damaged volumes have been shipped to an outside contractor that will treat them with a freeze-drying technique, but the results will not be known for four to six weeks.

Officials said the steam pipe burst could have led to disaster if the library staff had been unable to mobilize as fast as it did. Hours after the rupture, dozens of emergency workers, librarians, and their families waded through water in 130 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to rescue the books, Prochaska said. At one point, she said, the team rushed to remove over 7,000 books from a staffing area before the ceiling tiles collapsed due to saturation.

“It was quite dramatic, really,” Prochaska said. “It really brought it home to you what the steam could do.”

Officials are reviewing response procedures and organization schemes to protect against future accidents. A new plan is already in the works to better train the staff in flooding emergencies, and librarians may rearrange the collections to distance key volumes from the sprinkler system, which was set off by heat from the steam, Head Preservationist Roberta Pilette said.

“We’re really going to make sure our phone tree is a little more complete, and work on the training to smooth the bumps in our area, to make the library staff more comfortable in dealing with these sorts of things,” she said.

The steam damaged the ceiling tiles in Machine City, which officials said will be closed for several more days. A staffing area will also be closed for about two weeks, but officials said they do not expect students to notice a disruption in library services.

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