July 1993

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Resuscitating A Water-Logged Library


John H. Martin

In June of 1972 the Corning Museum of Glass and its library were suddenly faced with catastrophe; without warning most of the priceless collection was submerged by flood waters, the aftereffects of a hurricane.

During the first part of that month, Hurricane Agnes had swept up the eastern seaboard, but it seemed scarcely a threat to a museum 275 miles from the Atlantic. At the beginning of the third week in June, Agnes (now designated a tropical storm) suddenly swerved inland and then stalled for three days of continuous rainfall along the New York-Pennsylvania line in the western part of these states. One statistically-minded observer estimated that the amount of water that fell would have filled a container 25 miles long, one mile high, and one mile wide-more water than had ever fallen before in this inland area.

In the Painted Post-Corning area of western New York, three rivers join to form the Chemung, which bisects the city of Corning. On June 22, 1972, the river a normally placid one- to two-foot deep stream, stood about 15 feet deep, well contained within its 23'/2-foot dikes. Worried citizens who remained awake that night heard assurances on the radio by local officials at midnight that there was no danger.

At 5:00 a.m. on June 23rd the river suddenly crested at 27 to 28 feet, topped the dikes, and poured into town. The action of the current as it coursed over the dikes ate into the rear of the embankments. Before long the dikes were badly breached in five places. The torrent which raged through the north side of town tore houses from their foundations, sweeping some downstream and scattering others in the valley. Water up to 20 feet deep raced over areas of the town. Without warning the city was split in half. When flood waters also cut the approaches to town, Corning was effectively isolated from the rest of the world.

The isolation was complete—suddenly the community was without electricity, natural gas, telephones, gasoline, drinking water, sewage disposal, or main highway access. On battery-powered radios townspeople could hear about the flood in Elmira, 18 miles downstream, but it was impossible to learn of anything occurring in an area only a few blocks away.

The next morning, miraculously, the river was back in its banks, but it was almost three weeks before all utilities were restored. Unfortunately for the Corning collections, the museum was situated in the middle of the disaster area; water surged 15 to 20 feet deep in the Glass Center and to a height of more than five and one-half feet on the museum's main floor. It was obvious that extraordinary problems confronted the staff.

A brief description of the museum would be useful at this point. The famous collection of glass is the reason for the museum's existence, but as a research and scholarly oriented institution, its library is of great importance. Although 528 of the 13,000 objects in the glass collection sustained damage, this article is only concerned with the devastation wreaked on the library's holdings.

Over the past quarter of a century the museum has been developing one the finest library collections in the world on the art, archeology, and history of glass.

Today the collection is the library-of-record for printed works in this field. It buys every book and periodical issued about glass and purchases in allied areas as well. It collects in all languages from countries around the world. The library obtains manuscripts, trade catalogs, archives, documents, pamphlets, prints, photographs, slides, movie films, video tapes, microforms, and printed ephemera—anything concerning glass. It has medieval manuscripts, incunabula, rare books, first editions. The museum exchanges materials with countries around the world, and it publishes its own books and catalogs.

These listings are not meant as boasts; they are merely intended to show the breadth and depth of an exceedingly rich collection—thereby indicating the range of the restoration problems which were faced after the flood.

As fate would have it, at the time of the disaster the entire full-time professional staff of the museum- the director and curators-were attending the annual conference of the American Association of Museums in Mexico City. And the museum scientist had left the morning before the flood for Afghanistan to work on a research project.

Fortunately the staff members remaining rose to the occasion. The president of the board of trustees headed the salvage program until the professional staff returned. Staff who had lost their homes and their belongings, and who were temporarily living in public school buildings, pitched into the full-time effort. Volunteers appeared not only from the community, but from outside the area, from other states, and even from Canada.

What was the condition of the library on the morning of June 24, 1972?

Muddy water had swirled through the offices and library to a depth of more than five feet on the upper floor. Sodden books had expanded and bent the sides of the stacks, so that they bulged in a V shape. In their expanded state, books were so wedged into the stacks that crowbars had to be used to dislodge them. Other shelves, suddenly sprung free from the sides of the misshapen stacks, had dumped their volumes into the mud and water. The rare book and manuscript collection, shelved in separate stacks, had collapsed into the slime, burying incunabula and rare books in the mud. Staff literally walked on books in the first attempts to begin salvage.

Where does one start? How does one save a thoroughly ruined, irreplaceable collection of inestimable value? Fortunately the librarians remembered reading an article by Carolyn Horton containing George Cunha's advice on the subject. Miraculously the article was found, and it was decided to follow its suggestion to freeze the books.

Easier said than done. Without electricity there were no freezers. Without gasoline stations, no transportation. With all the stores in Corning damaged, there were no boxes, no paper towels, no running water for cleaning mud from books. Somehow though, the impossible was achieved through the assistance of the local government and the Corning Glass Works, and emergency radio transmitters were brought in so it was possible to reach beyond the area to find the needed supplies.

Under the direction of the librarians, the staff and volunteers of all ages-some of them children- began the difficult job of salvage. The rare books were gathered from the debris on the floor, some of them, unhappily, open face-down in the mud, some without covers. Minimal cleaning was all that could be done since there was no running water. It was cool and still raining. If the work did not move along quickly, mold would develop within five days.

The books were in such sorry condition that they had to be wrapped in paper towels to hold them together, to absorb moisture, and to separate volumes from one another. Herein was an error, although it was a minor one. Had the books been wrapped in plastic, it would have been easier to separate the individual volumes later-and plastic would have kept the books in a state of damp equilibrium.

Mud had been unevenly distributed; some books had been only partially wet from the flood. Subsequent sublimation in freezers was to dry some books unevenly, and in the case of coated papers, pages would solidify before the books could be worked on. But this was not known these first days, nor was there plastic available in the devastated valley.

Using what boxes could be scrounged, the books were trucked to home freezes and commercial freezing lockers 20 to 25 miles away-anyplace where they could be frozen to retard mold growth. It took five days to pack the damaged collection of approximately 6500 books, plus pamphlets, files, catalogs, and other materials. Some 30 boxes of office files were packed and frozen as well. Those items beyond repair or those which could not be salvaged before they became irreparably damaged were consigned to an ever-growing mountain of debris outside the museum. It was decided to abandon part of the periodical collection, believing that it could be replaced without too much difficulty. In time this decision would be rued, since many journals proved almost impossible to find.

Whereas the initial packing had been done in an orderly fashion as books were removed shelf-by-shelf from the stacks, the urgency to get materials frozen before mold developed led to packing in any order to complete this first phase of the job. All order disappeared, but things did get packed, which was the goal. By the time the last volumes were placed in boxes and on route to the freezers, colorful mold had begun to appear. The work had been finished just in time.

Efforts were now directed to other salvage work in the museum. When the staff reached two storehouses elsewhere in town, they found materials so badly damaged that it was necessary to use mechanized scoops to remove the odiferous mess.

There was, however, one unsolvable major problem: The flood had ruined the card catalog, and it had to be discarded. Additional records had been either lost or damaged or were in deep freeze 25 miles away. One tool remained: the shelf list. Unfortunately it too had been damaged; but it was soon dried out, photocopied, and available both for restoration and the filing of insurance claims.

With the books now ensconced in freezers throughout three counties, the staff turned its attention to nonbook holdings. Corning Community College, located on a hill three miles away, cleared out the main reading room and other rooms of its library to provide space for storing the museum library's undamaged books (6500 volumes had been above the waterline) on cement block and board shelves. This was a place to work, a place to begin the restoration process.

Paper was placed on the floor, and the shelf list, art print collection, and various other paper collections were spread out to dry. The slide and photographic collections (over 72,000 items) were next approached. Half the photographic collection was frozen; the other half (about 11,000 prints) was dumped into a swimming pool to keep the photos wet and free from mold, to remove the mud, and to permit them to be cleaned and dried as weather and staff time allowed. A break in the eternal rain finally permitted them to be dried on the lawn.

On the basis of professional advice, the color slide collection (50,500 items) was stored in tubs of water in the college library, where they were-one at a time- removed from their aluminum-and-glass mounts, washed, and hung up to dry on clotheslines, with paper clips serving as hooks on the line. (The clip went through the sprocket holes on the side of the film.) The mounts were dried also, since they contained the cataloging information needed.

Ultimately the photographs and slides that had been immersed in water had to be abandoned. The color slides had suffered too much damage to be restored to usable condition. The dried black-and-white photographs were not of sufficient quality to be worth further restoration. It was decided to give up this portion of the collections and to rephotograph the glass objects later. That rephotographing schedule became a ten-year project to return the collections to 1972 status.

Of the approximately 11,000 photographs frozen almost immediately after the flood, about 6,500 were eventually thawed, cleaned, dried, and hardened successfully. (An additional 4,000 photographs that were not frozen until the fourth day after the flood suffered too much mold damage to be restored.) A large selection of frozen 4" x 5" and 8" x 10" color transparencies and negatives were also successfully restored.

On Aug. 1, 1972, 39 days after the disaster, the museum was reopened to the public. Although reopening so quickly seemed an impossible goal in June, the decision was an act of faith in the future of the museum and of the community. So on that day a thoroughly restored (if one did not glance into the offices and workrooms) museum was open to the public once more.

In late August the college needed its library for student use, so the museum library returned to the valley and moved into a former supermarket. That autumn was spent in setting up shop once more so that restoration could begin in earnest. Files had to be reconstructed and plans made for the future. The time-consuming task of preparing an insurance claim to cover replacement and restoration costs was begun, a task which became an 18-month project. Loss of the card catalog made preparation of the claim more difficult.

The collections scattered throughout the neighboring counties had to be brought back from the various freezing plants. A freezer truck was rented and parked next to the library-restoration building. The museum's frozen assets were home again.

Click here for Part 2 of this article
Wilson Library Bulletin, Nov 1975. Reprinted by permission.
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