Library strengthens its flood defenses

While the Library of Congress was largely high and dry last week after flooding closed several other federal agencies containing important documents, officials in the preservation office stood ready to save items in the collection if necessary.

There was no significant damage to documents during or after the storms, but Dianne van der Reyden, director of the library's preservation directorate, said her office was on alert when it became clear that the weather could cause problems.

"We took stock of what the risks and were ready to respond if a problem was reported," van der Reyden said, adding that trained staff members were ready at a moment's notice 24 hours a day to respond to a leak if one occurred.

Van der Reyden said the procedures used by the office and federal agencies such as the National Archives have been increased and improved since Hurricane Katrina so there is a better chance of meeting challenges and saving important documents.

In the past year, the library has given "salvage training" not only to preservation staff but also to curatorial staff. That way if there is an incident a big group of employees can be called to the rescue of the collections.

"The worst problem with collections is water damage," van der Reyden said.

She described several preservation methods. "We can air-dry, books might be splayed out, [documents] can be hung on a clothesline … or we can put them on screens … and fans are used to help increase the ventilation," she said.

Because documents have different finishes and are made of different materials, a wide range of responses are necessary.

"Some media will run if traditional methods are used," she said.

The library also has a "suction table" to draw moisture out of a delicate document. Documents can also be vacuumed or freeze-dried to ensure they do not grow mold.

"If there is mold than you really have a big problem," van der Reyden said. "It could cause permanent damage, and mold can be toxic."

Whoever discovers a leak or mold should report it to the Library of Congress police, who then contact the preservation office.

Mold usually takes 24 hours to start forming on water-damaged documents; trained staff members usually respond to reports of leaks or damage within an hour, van der Reyden said.

Fire and smoke are a danger to collections, but destruction by water is more likely.

The preservation directorate was created after  disastrous floods swept away or damaged a trove of precious records and artifacts in Florence, Italy, in 1966 prompting a worldwide preservation effort.

"Katrina was our Florence flood," van der Reyden said, describing how the far-reaching devastation caused the library to bulk up preservation efforts.

She said the library plans to expand its protections and readiness by developing a national program to respond if important historical documents are damaged by water, smoke or fire.