Angela Andres, Special Collections Conservator at New York University (NYU) Libraries, presented a case study of the salvage and treatment of a rare pamphlet collection from NYU’s Ehrman Medical Library. The collection consists of approximately 200 medical works, which sustained water damage when New York City took a direct hit from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. This presentation tied in well to the overall conference theme of Practical Philosophy, or Making Conservation Work, as the aftermath of the storm made the salvage and conservation of this collection particularly challenging.
Power outages and infrastructure disruptions were widespread in New York City in the weeks following Superstorm Sandy. Though conservators from NYU’s Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Department were quickly on hand to assist with the Ehrman Library recovery effort, they were unable to enter some of the library spaces immediately after the storm due to flooding. Once the building was accessible, conservators worked with disaster recovery vendor Belfor and library staff to salvage water damaged materials, including this pamphlet collection. Due to concerns about mold growth and difficulties in locating a freezer or reliable power source, conservators interleaved the pamphlets with Tek-Wipe and packed them for removal to the Conservation Lab at NYU’s Bobst Library. Because of ongoing transit interruptions, it was necessary to transport the collection to the lab by taxi.
The pamphlets were frozen to allow for treatment in smaller groups over the next two years. Because the collection had been submerged in flood water containing sewage and medical waste, individual pamphlets were thawed and rinsed in a water bath. If mold was present, it was remediated after thawing with an alcohol solution. Dirt, fasteners, adhesive residue, and threads were removed while the object was in the bath. Each pamphlet was then dried, surface cleaned, mended, and rebound. Partway through the project, the Ehrman Library decided to digitize the collection, so the level of treatment was scaled back to accommodate imaging more easily.
In the wake of such a large disaster, the urge to assist can be overwhelming. Angela’s assessment of the positive and negative outcomes of this project was both practical and insightful. The active role taken by NYU Library leadership, as well as the effective division of labor, helped recovery efforts go as efficiently as possible. The Ehrman Library had a recently updated disaster plan with designated salvage priorities, and worked quickly to get a contract in place with a disaster recovery vendor when it proved necessary. The conservation treatment of this collection also afforded the Ehrman Library the chance to digitize and rehouse these materials as part of its long-term preservation strategy.
However, the in-house treatment of this collection significantly affected the conservation lab functions, and led conservators there to reexamine their approach to future salvage situations. Angela acknowledged that the strong desire to help in the aftermath of the storm might have prevented conservation staff from evaluating the situation more critically. In retrospect, Angela felt that it might have been useful to do a smaller pilot study prior to beginning treatment of the collection. That would have enabled conservators to get a better sense of treatment times, identify areas where treatment steps could be streamlined, and determine whether additional funding or staff would be needed to complete the project.
During the question and answer session, audience members asked Angela about specific salvage and treatment protocols. One participant asked why the Tek-Wipe interleaving was removed prior to freezing. Angela responded that the Tek-Wipe interleaving had become saturated with filthy water, and conservators wanted to get as much dirt away from the objects as possible. Pre-cut freezer paper is part of the conservation lab’s disaster kit and was readily available, so that was used instead. Another audience member noted the presence of iron gall ink on some of the pamphlets, and asked if any iron gall ink treatment was done. Angela responded that there were comparatively few iron gall ink inscriptions in this collection, and no additional treatment was done.