Writing is a set of permanent thoughts, or, as a famous Gelfling once said, “words that stay.” I tell my students that a book is just about the most effective method of data storage and transmission ever devised. It’s a set of transcribed thoughts organized by page number and cross-referenced both by sequential progression (TOC) and also by subject (index). Computers can make the retrieval process faster, but engineers haven’t quite come up with a better method of storage. (Yet.)
But books are fragile. They don’t weather the elements well. Stone tablets will last for millennia. Paper lasts for a century at best, and mass-market paperbacks won’t last more than a few decades. (It remains to be seen what the lifespan of e-books are.)
Worse, disaster can strike without warning. Like when the water sprinkler on the floor above your library goes off and water cascades into your open stacks and onto your computers. Which is what happened to the MCNY library Saturday morning.
Water is the enemy of every library. Humidity breeds mold, which eats through paper like a college student goes through pizza and Froot Loops. There are ways of recovering books that have been affected by fungus, but they’re expensive and not always reliable. As in medicine, the best fix is to prevent it.
The good news is that most of the collection is fine. The bad news is that about a thousand books got drowned. We have a circulating collection of about 20,000 books, so 5% of our stuff needs to be dealt with on an emergency basis.
In some cases, water pooling on the carpet is all we had to deal with. That’s not too awful. The fix is to move in mobile AC units and up the heat over the weekend. That was done, and it worked.
Many books were pulled off shelves pre-emptively, before the worst could happen.
Many more volumes were soaked and were moved into the server room, because it had the best air flow.
This is where we are now, with piles of books awaiting triage. Over the next week I’ll go through them one at a time. The dry ones will be replaced in the now dry stacks. The soaked ones will probably be discarded. The merely damp ones will be dried as best they can and replaced in the stacks. If mold has set in, they’ll be discarded as well.
In the meantime, all other work stops. The current mission is recovering what assets we have.
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