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Vol. LXIII, No. 16
August 5, 2011

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NLM Ready to Save Books in Times of Disaster

Dr. William Paul today

Walter Cybulski, NLM preservation librarian, prepares wet books for freezing.

Photo: E. Deshaun Williams

According to a recent survey by Heritage Preservation, a national institute for conservation, over 80 percent of the nation’s libraries and museums are not adequately prepared to save their books and other holdings in the event of a disaster. Fortunately, the National Library of Medicine is ready.

“The library has had an effective disaster plan in place for over 20 years,” says preservation librarian Walter Cybulski, one of NLM’s leaders in disaster planning. Cybulski, who has worked in NLM’s preservation and collection management section since 1996, is an avid reader and published poet. He was drawn to the field in part due to a respect for books and libraries his parents instilled in him.

Disaster response planning is one of the main concerns for a library preservation program. After responding to many disasters at other institutions, NLM conservation librarian Holly Herro wanted to provide technical information for first responders at other libraries and museums. The result was a new NLM web site, “Emergency Preparedness and Response: How to Safely Stabilize, Salvage and Recover Collections in the Event of a Water Emergency.” The site includes links to short instructional videos and is accessible via hand-held devices, allowing remote access. The site is at

Collections are vulnerable to a number of hazards ranging from mishandling damage and theft to insect infestation, flood and fire. The last two are considered the most threatening. What is destroyed by fire cannot be recovered and what is damaged by water may not be recoverable.

Mitigation is a critical component of a disaster response program, Cybulski says. Eliminating potential sources of problems is as important as being prepared to respond. To protect its rare and historical materials, NLM combines early detection (using a state-of-the-art smoke detection system) with instant notification of the NIH Fire Department. The aim is to detect and remove the source of a fire before the library’s sprinkler system needs to be activated.

If a major fire occurs, nothing can be done to save the collection until after the blaze has been put out. Human safety takes precedence over all other disaster response actions, Cybulski notes. Library staff is only permitted to enter a disaster area after building engineers declare the area safe.

If water is discovered in a collection storage area, responders place absorbent matting in the aisles and corridors between bookshelves, to sop up water and prevent staff from slipping on wet floors. Wet vacuums are used to remove water and plastic sheeting is placed over bookshelves still at risk. In some cases, a diverter (essentially a large yellow umbrella) can be hung upside down directly below a ceiling leak to channel water down through a plastic hose to a large trash can.

As the water is cleaned up, fans and dehumidifiers are deployed to dry out the area. “We have a limited window of opportunity to take emergency steps to save water-damaged books,” notes Cybulski. “Beyond 48 hours, mold growth will begin to cause irreversible damage.”

Small quantities of lightly wet books can be air-dried with fans and delicatessen- type tissue placed between wet pages. In some cases, large quantities of wet books may need to be frozen until a conservator can get to each one and make repairs. The library has 32 cubic feet of freezer space on-site and has a plan to have larger quantities of wet material transported to off-site freezer facilities if necessary.

So far, NLM has been fortunate. Despite a few leaks over the years, there have been only minor losses of collection materials. Having well-trained staff who know how to respond to disasters means NLM’s valuable collections of biomedical research material are well-protected for future generations, says Cybulski. NIHRecord Icon

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