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Book CPR

The Library’s hands-on Emergency Response and Recovery Workshop taught practical skills to salvage damaged materials.


October 28, 2014—Pedestrians outside Lamont Library were appalled earlier this month to see books and papers sodden on their shelves, once-orderly stacks unfurling into a warped disaster zone. But a cheerful sign relieved tension and judgment—it was all part of the Library’s Emergency Response & Recovery Workshop, which trains library staff to save collections from the worst in the case of water-based damage from leaks or sprinkler systems.

Hosted by Preservation Services, experts gave demonstrations, lectures and lessons reinforced by hands-on practice over two days; over 48 Harvard Library staffers participated.


Conservation technicians work together to pour water off a box.

Stacks were filled with donated materials outside Lamont, hosed down and left overnight. Conservation technicians Katherine Gray and Kathryn Kenney practice carefully pouring pooled water from a protective box to keep further moisture from the materials inside.

Wet books, papers, VHS tapes and other media.

The bulk of materials used in the training were books, but staff also practiced on flat paper items, photographs, and AV collections.

Priscilla Anderson with attendee.

“The conservation staff at Harvard has world-class training, abilities and experience in working with damaged, rare and fragile materials,” said Priscilla Anderson, senior preservation librarian (left) who organized the event. “The workshop is a great way to spread that expertise widely in the community, although we hope we never need to use it.” 

Staffers work together in the stacks outside Lamont.

One of the first tenets of the training is like that of any emergency response: keep calm and plan before acting. Here, participants assess what is on the shelf and discuss processes before getting their hands dirty (or rather, wet).

Theresa Smith works with oversized item.

Oversized items present logistical challenges when they’re wet, as they are both heavier and weaker than their smaller counterparts. Theresa Smith carefully removes a flat item with a firm support underneath.

Staffers work together in the stacks outside Lamont.

Dale Stinchcomb, a curatorial assistant from Houghton Library (right) removes damaged materials from shelving and places them on a book truck to receive treatment.

Alan Puglia gives a wet book the green-glove treatment.

Presenters came from all over Harvard to address life safety, public safety and library collection priorities as well as methodology. Staff from the Weissman Preservation Center, Collections Care, Environmental Health & Safety, Harvard University Police Department, FAS Operations & Security, Fine Arts and Divinity libraries and the Employee Assistance Program shared their expertise. Here, senior rare book conservator Alan Puglia demonstrates how to safely handle wet books and begin the drying process.

Susi Barbarossa demonstrates interleaving method to dry a book.

Senior conservation technician for special collections Susi Barbarossa shows Kenney and Susan Sills of the Fine Arts Library how to fan wet books on a table and interleave them with paper towels to aid drying.

Kelli Piotrowoski, Catherine Gray and Nell Carlson inspect an LP.

Since each item is unique, each requires a specific assessment and treatment plan. The workshop set up tests of different methodologies to dry materials to accommodate for condition and media. Kelli Piotrowoski, Catherine Gray and Nell Carlson inspect an LP to discuss potential treatment plans.