Arts & Culture

Synchronized effort rescues collection

4 min read

Drainpipe rupture spurs teams of experts to reclaim Pusey’s Harvard Theatre Collection

Heavy rain Saturday night (March 8) caused a large drainpipe to rupture in Pusey Library. More than 500 gallons of water poured into the Harvard Theatre Collection stacks and seeped through the floor, flooding the three levels beneath it. At risk were hundreds of original drawings of costume and set designs, hand-painted theatrical backdrops, and Early American manuscripts and books, including the Emily Dickinson family library from Houghton Library, the University’s rare book depository.

Damage to materials was less extensive than it might have otherwise been. With a flood watch set by the National Weather Service, the Harvard College Library (HCL) had arranged for security staff to conduct additional tours of the stacks over the weekend to monitor the libraries for water leaks. When the pipe burst at approximately 7:30 p.m., one of those guards discovered and reported it. Within 20 minutes of the report, HCL Operations was on site with the Library Collections Emergency Team (LCET) arriving shortly after.

Like a well-rehearsed dance troupe, each team knew its part. Operations concentrated on stemming the flow of water from the pipe, vacuuming standing water from the affected floors of the library, and lowering humidity levels in the building. HCL Operations Director Paul Bellenoit and team member Andy LaPlume choreographed a custodial clean-up crew that was able to get to work quickly by drawing upon a well-stocked emergency supply closet containing wet vacs, dehumidifiers, folding tables, sheets of plastic, paper towels, and myriad other supplies anticipated for such emergencies. A moving crew was brought in after midnight to move the rain-soaked backdrops and prepare a staging area where they could be unrolled to dry.

At the same time, the LCET team, assisted by Houghton librarians and staff members from the Office of the College Librarian, moved collections out of danger and began treating damaged materials. LCET is on call 24 hours a day to provide assistance in emergencies that threaten University library collections. It is comprised of conservators and preservation librarians in the Weissman Preservation Center and in the Preservation & Imaging unit of Harvard College Library. Project conservator Heather Hendry was the team leader Saturday and, together with Carie McGinnis, the Houghton preservation librarian, coordinated salvage and treatment efforts on site with four other LCET members.

Finding space to lay out the extensive number of materials, many of them oversized, proved a particular challenge. After employing the full supply of emergency folding tables, LCET members moved out into the main level of Pusey Library, using the corridor floors and every possible tabletop in the reading rooms of the Theatre Collection, the Harvard Map Collection, and the University Archives; the floor of Houghton’s Edison and Newman Room; and a space under construction in Lamont Library.

Level 1 of Pusey Library and all adjacent reading rooms were closed to the public until mid-week to allow materials in those spaces time to dry. The Harvard Map Collection, the University Archives, and the Pusey Library main entrance reopened on Wednesday, although some materials, which are cordoned off, are still drying on the corridor floor. The Harvard Theatre Collection, whose materials were most significantly affected, remains closed indefinitely. Materials from the collection that are available to patrons can be paged through the Houghton Reading Room.

Rapid response in a water emergency is essential not only because of water damage to the collection and building, but also because of the serious potential for mold. At room temperature there is only a small window for drying and dehumidifying the environment before mold begins to grow. Once it sets in, every piece in the entire area must be disinfected and thoroughly vacuumed to remove mold spores. While water-damaged materials can be treated, mold often renders them impossible to salvage. This situation would have created a particularly difficult job because of the nature of the rare materials stored in that part of the library. The building infrastructure would have required the same time-intensive treatment. Fortunately, the library response teams beat the clock on all counts.

— Harvard College Library Communications