By the Book: The Recovery Effort at Tulane University

Article ImageWith all the talk of FEMA trailers, insurance fiascos, and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, it’s easy to forget that Hurricane Katrina hit area libraries hard. Tulane University officials came back to campus after the storm to find that 8' of water had turned the basement of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library into a soupy mess of raw sewage, chemicals, water, and priceless library materials.

"We had about 700,000 print volumes and recordings underwater for about three weeks," says associate dean Andrew Corrigan, in addition to roughly 1.5 million pieces of microform. Library management had to make quick decisions about what to save and enlisted Belfor, a disaster restoration specialist, to help recover collections of government documents, microforms, newspapers, and a music library.

After the water receded, Belfor moved all materials selected for restoration into freezer trucks. "When paper gets wet it starts deteriorating and the longer it stays wet the worse it gets, so the first step in recovery from water damage is to freeze it so no more damage occurs and no more mold growth is possible," explains Kirk Lively, director of technical services for Belfor USA in Fort Worth, Texas.

Frozen materials were sent to cold storage in Memphis, Tenn., and Fort Worth, where the restoration takes place. Materials are washed and dried, then they undergo a gamma ray treatment process that completely sterilizes the materials to kill any mold, bacteria, or viruses that may still be living there.  

As Lively, who helped develop the gamma radiation process, explains, first aid products often undergo this treatment for sterilization because the energy particles can penetrate packaging to kill unwanted elements. For Tulane, this means that the books can be loaded into aluminum "totes" that sit on a conveyor belt and take materials to be sterilized. Prior to gamma radiation, sterilization was a tedious, potentially toxic, and occasionally unsuccessful operation in which every square inch of every page would be individually treated. Lively helped in the recovery effort following a flood that damaged nearly 500,000 materials at Colorado State University in 1997; that project was one of the first in which gamma radiation was used on a large scale to kill mold on library materials.

"There are a lot of factors that will affect the end result," says Lively, including the extent of the water damage (for example, if books are totally submerged as opposed to being damaged by a sprinkler system), contaminants in the water, and the type of paper. Photographic books are particularly problematic because of their glossy pages, which are made with a clay coating that Lively says "basically sticks to whatever it’s touching" when it gets wet.

That said, "As long as it’s not mashed into pulp, you can recover almost anything," he adds. He estimates that less than 2% of materials are ultimately unrecoverable, and costs generally determine what institutions choose to salvage. "Most of it comes down to how much it’s worth to you," he says.

For Tulane, it’s worth quite a bit. In March, the library used a ceremonial golden book cart to return the first batch of restored materials to library shelves. But the process of getting restored materials onto shelves is a large-scale endeavor itself. Tulane contracted with Library Associates Companies to assist in the processing of recovered, donated, and acquired materials—the company set up the Tulane Libraries Recovery Center on site in February and is now working closely with library personnel to get materials back in circulation as quickly as possible.

"The [restored] materials don’t jump back onto the shelves. They go through the same process as when we acquire something new—it requires a lot of work," explains Corrigan. "The organizing of the Recovery Center is a really big deal; it’s what is going to put us back."

According to Del Hamilton, the on-site project manager at the Recovery Center, the center will be able to process 2,000–2,500 items per week. Although restoration work at the Belfor facility was expected to wrap up in May, Hamilton estimates Library Associates will be working with Tulane for at least 2 years—a time frame confirmed by Corrigan. Priority No. 1 for all involved is to get the music materials back in circulation as faculty has indicated it to be a great need, with government documents and language and literature materials to follow. "Simultaneously we’re working on the special collections materials," adds Hamilton. All told, the Recovery Center will process the 210,000 restored items and an anticipated 100,000 new items.

"Things are coming along," says Corrigan, comparing the process to a game: "This is the end of the first quarter and we’re winning, but we’ve got a long way to go."