I TEACH MY graduate students that through an as yet unexplained force in hydrology, rare books attract water.
So once the shock wore off (in about 20 seconds), I was not altogether surprised to hear from a colleague on Monday that parts of the ceiling in the College Archives had collapsed and sent buckets of runoff all over some of the Special Collections stacks and my work table. If drains and downspouts haven't been maintained, you'll find where the leaks are real quick when it rains for nearly a week without stopping.
This is actually the third leak since I've been in the Archives -- an average of one a year. It is by far the biggest, but back in 2008 it didn't take long to figure out that the Spearman Room is the lowest point in the Charles Willard Coe Memorial Library. Overflowing toilets, condensation from the A/C and now rain have all had their turn. Rare books are water magnets.
I don't know whether it's long tradition, economics or what that inspires architects to locate rare books in basements. They all do it. In teaching library preservation management, I've seen plenty of blueprints that run all manner of pipes and plumbing directly over the treasures. One of my students just a couple weeks ago got firsthand experience when a clogged drain leaked onto the bound records in the basement of the Orange County Archives. The epic flood in Florence in 1967 swamped thousands of square feet of centuries-old basements, each filled to the joists with medieval books and manuscripts. Forty-three years later, by the way, they're still cleaning up.
I had to sit this disaster out, unfortunately; I'm home on vacation and getting over a sprained knee. My wonderful colleagues Joseph, Cheryl and Lorena moved the wet books to dry ground -- the Porch -- set up a few fans, interleaved with paper towels what pages they could. The stacks shelves are covered with plastic in case there's more water. We're all hoping that the first floor won't bloom forth with a garden of mold, which has happened before. We'll know next week.
I was dreaming of a wet Christmas, but this isn't quite what I had in mind!