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As the Library Sleeps

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This is a guest post by Jennifer Lewis, a Preservation Specialist in the Conservation Division who specializes in stabilization, collection housing, and large-scale projects.  

: A view of sunlight filtering through the dome above the empty main reading room in the summer of 2020
A view of sunlight filtering through the dome above the empty main reading room in the summer of 2020. Photo by Jen Lewis / 2020 / Conservation Division.

Have you wondered what the Library was like when the buildings were nearly empty during the first months of the pandemic? During the Library’s extended closure beginning in March 2020, a team of volunteers from the Conservation Division monitored our historic buildings for leaks, environmental changes, and threats to collection safety.  This post describes how we adapted to protect the Library’s collections from harm while the storage areas remained unoccupied.

In Conservation, one of our main concerns during these dark days was that a key piece of our collection protection system would be missing – the people.  We count on staff in all areas of the library to be the eyes on the collections and the buildings. While Capitol Police, Architect of the Capitol (AOC) staff, LC facilities staff, and a few others would be in the buildings, most collection storage spaces would be unoccupied for an undetermined period of time.

a serene stack view at the top of the Thomas Jefferson Building
A serene stack view at the top of the Thomas Jefferson Building. Photo by Jen Lewis / 2020 / Conservation Division.

What would happen if there were unnoticed drips from sprinklers, sinks, or the roof? Would pests move in to stack areas that were left dark? We worried that problems like these might go unrecognized for months while areas of our historic buildings remained empty for prolonged periods.  We also needed to continue environmental monitoring to protect collections from extremes and variations in temperature and relative humidity.

With hundreds of miles of shelves in what is widely regarded as the largest library in the world, Monitoring the collections is a monumental job.  Like many large libraries in historic buildings, we do have leaks periodically in collection spaces. While most are very minor, if left unattended for long periods of time, collection damage and mold could become concerns.

The Preservation Emergency Response Team (PERT) is a group of staff from the Preservation Directorate who respond to emergencies that affect collections. From pinhole leaks in the Adams Building copper pipe sprinkler system, to unexpected serious roof water incursions, we’re there 24/7 to help protect and save collections as part of the response team.

So we made a plan.

We developed and tested a systematic plan for making sure every deck in the Adams and Jefferson Buildings had eyes on it each week.  We coordinated with special collections divisions to encourage divisional staff to check their storage areas regularly. We walked miles of stacks each week, glancing down each row, and checking on any known problem spots.  Those of us who volunteered got to know the buildings extremely well.  From the time of shut down in March to September 2020 when more staff began reporting on-site, there were 50 leaks in our buildings.  Most were incredibly minor, and only 4 affected any collection materials.  While not glamorous, it was important work.

We added on some tasks that were easy to do while walking, helping with environmental monitoring, recommending areas for our pest control contractor to focus on, and even reporting light outages and other maintenance problems.

As stack checkers, we had the privilege of witnessing the quiet majesty of the empty reading room, the views of the Capitol and Washington Monument against a broad blue sky from the top of the Thomas Jefferson building, and the serenity of the glowing marble floors in the Jefferson stacks. As a side note: did you know the marble floors on the decks in the Jefferson building allow light to pass through? Here’s a view of what this looks like when the lights are on in adjacent decks while your floor is dark!

In early August, we were faced with responding to a serious leak in the Jefferson Building in the wake of tropical storm Isaias.  Luckily, it was found quickly on different decks by both our stack checking team and an African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) staff member who had been doing targeted collection checks. Water was present on four floors, activating our water incursion protocol system to alert all necessary staff to find the problem, respond, and repair the building envelope issue.

The PERT team preservation specialist at the scene was able to enlist Conservation interns and a conservator who quickly moved endangered collections out of the path of the leak, while covering adjacent areas with plastic sheeting.  We transferred more than 100 collection items (volumes and paper collections) to our recovery room to dry or be put in our freezers for later recovery efforts. While moving in the buildings was more cumbersome with COVID restrictions, we made use of several separate elevators and stairs, and spread out in rows to maintain safe distances. All materials were safely recovered, and we were able to give interns some valuable emergency response experience.

Our stack checks improved our knowledge of the library, and helped strengthen working relationships with the staff who keep the buildings in good working order. As more staff return onsite we will continue to work with collection and Library stakeholders to ensure that we all remain vigilant in looking for water that may threaten our collections.

Comments (4)

  1. Really nice blog!

  2. Wow. Thank you for your invisible, continuous protection of the treasures while we were quarantined — and for letting us know about it.

  3. I never thought about how lack of people presence could actually harm a library! This is a thought-provoking piece.

  4. such presence of mind, really commendable

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