JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 10 (pp. to )
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 10 (pp. to )




Servpro began water removal on the first, second, and third floors simultaneously. Members of the VCA were asked to bring portable hygrothermographs to assist in monitoring all areas containing collection materials. We did not have enough available to monitor every area. Servpro supplied industrial-size fans and dehumidifiers to assist in establishing a controlled environment. This equipment was placed throughout the building.


Because four floors were affected by the water disaster, a three-pronged approach was adopted. As a result of a delay in contacting the head of technical services, who lives more than an hour from Richmond, and the unavailability of the head of library services, Servpro was instructed by the command post to pack up all books to be put in the freezer. The head of technical services assumed supervision of that task after her arrival on the scene. Ms. Herro headed up salvaging the reading room and rare book storage and general collection storage areas. Ms. Rusch supervised and trained staff and volunteers in air-drying the unprocessed manuscripts. This operation took place in the lecture hall, a ground-floor area unaffected by the water disaster. The VCA conservators started arriving within a half hour of notification and began to assess the needs of the nonbook collections. The conservators began to remove the paintings, furniture, and objects from the water-laden areas (fig. 5). Later-arriving conservators were stationed throughout the building.

Fig. 5. Recovery of the reading room in progress

Before the new year arrived, 69 boxes of books, both rare and general collection materials, were packed and delivered to –20�F cold storage. To assure security and safe delivery, the associate director accompanied the truck to the storage facility. The microfilm was removed from its shelving and placed in a dry, stable environment in an adjacent gallery. The library furniture, antebellum furniture, paintings, and objects were stabilized in a dry, temperature-controlled area of the building. Furniture with wet feet was air-dried on blotters. The paintings sustained minimum damage. Only two paintings had damp backings. Fans were aimed toward them to facilitate drying. The 40 boxes of unprocessed manuscripts were in the process of air-drying. All manuscripts were continually interleaved with paper towels in a controlled environment in the first-floor lecture hall until dried. As afternoon stretched into evening, food was provided for all the workers.

On New Year's Day, the staff returned to continue the salvage and rehabilitation. An analysis and examination of the building and the stacks were conducted. Upon inspection, several more wet books in rare book storage and the reference collection were discovered. For the overlooked wet books, replacement copies of books that were not out of print were ordered, and the replaceable wet books were discarded. This decision saved the time and the expense of air-drying. The rest of the wet books were moved on book trucks to the lecture hall on the ground floor, where the manuscripts were being treated by air-drying. These books were interleaved until dried.

The environment in the reading room was not stable, and the temperature and humidity were too high. Ten ranges of dry Virginia genealogical books were moved that day on book carts to the general collection book stacks on the ground floor. Volunteers and staff placed the volumes in call number order on the bottom shelves of the book stacks. The manuscripts continued to be air-dried that day and for the next three days. When they were dry, the items were rehoused in archival folders and boxes. Servpro proceeded with the drying and cleaning of the carpeting in the reading room. The insurance company made the decision to retain the existing rug, saying the rug was backed with a plastic coating that prevented water from penetrating it. The insurers believed no mold would develop in the future. Food and refreshments were again provided for all the workers.

The next day was Sunday. We rested.


On the first day of the disaster, the books were stabilized by freezing at –20�F. Then the VHS's conservation staff began researching the options for restoration of the sodden books. We conferred with several companies that provide disaster recovery services. We investigated the options of vacuum freeze-drying and freezer-drying. Several companies stated that they were able to recover both rare and general collection books with good results. Upon further investigation, by talking to former clients, we found this assertion misleading.

The recovery of the general collection differed from the recovery of the rare books. The bindings of rare books are artifacts and need to be preserved because of their significant historical value. To gather firsthand information about recovery of rare books from a disaster, we contacted Romaine Ahlstrom, subject specialist for arts and recreation librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library. The conservators talked with her concerning the recovery from fire and water damage of that institution's collections. Ms. Ahlstrom advised us to vacuum-freeze-dry the general collection. Vacuum-freeze-drying has good results with cloth and buckram bindings. The rare books at the Los Angeles Public Library had been vacuum-freeze-dried with undesirable results because the bindings dried before the text block, which caused the leather and vellum bindings to crack and shrink. On Ms. Ahlstrom's recommendation, the society sent the general collection books to Document Reprocessing for vacuum freeze-drying. The results were excellent.

The conservators continued to investigate other options for the rare books. They researched the process of freezer-drying. It also proved undesirable. Ice crystals can form in the cellulose if the temperature of the freezer is not low enough. The bindings again dry first, so there is the possibility of distortion. Also, a conservator would not be overseeing the process.

Next, the conservators called Don Etherington at the Etherington Conservation Center, Division of Information Conservation Inc. Because of the types of 17th- and 18th-century bindings that were involved and the age of the books, he suggested air-drying and dimensional restraint in a press. Mr. Etherington would be directly involved with the rehabilitation, and only four or five books would be dried at a time. The rest would remain in –20�F cold storage near his facility.

The conservators consulted Tom Albro at the Library of Congress and, along with the administration of the society, discussed whether to air-dry the rare books at Mr. Etherington's facility. On Mr. Albro's advice, air-drying was recommended as a solution, and the rare books were sent to Etherington Conservation Center. The results were excellent. Evidence of water damage remains, however; tide lines are visible on some volumes. Selected volumes required conservation treatment partly because of the sustained water damage.

The process of recovery and rehabilitation of the collection required 1,222.5 staff and volunteer hours and 10 months for completion. Bill Ivey, a private furniture conservator who was one of the VCA volunteers, was retained to repair the water damage to the finishing layer on Stonewall Jackson's bookcase and the library furniture in the reading room. The final cost of the water disaster at the Virginia Historical Society was $76,000 (table 1).

Table 1. The Final Cost of the Water Diaster at the Virginia Historical Society in 1993
Physical Plan Cost— Recovery of Building 
Professional cleanning $25,000 
Supplies to restore equipment $11,100 
Subtotal $36,100 
Collections Cost—Recovery of Collections, Including Cost for Transportation and an Additional $300,000 
Freeze-dry the reference collection $7,000 
Hand-dry the rare books $22,000 
Supplies to recovers the manuscripts $4,900 
Additional book conservation $6,000 
Subtotal 39,900 
Total $76,000