Ketchikan librarians freeze thousands of books after pipe bursts at UAS campus

Wmen pack up books into boxes in front of rows of shelves of books
Professor Kasia Polanska, Ph.D., left, and Office Assistant Tessa Nelson, right, place books in the boxes Feb. 10. (Photo courtesy of UAS Ketchikan)

Thousands of library books — some of them rare — are in cold storage after a sprinkler pipe burst on the University of Alaska Southeast’s Ketchikan campus. College librarians went to great lengths to salvage items from the collection.

Repairs to the library are progressing and librarian Kathy Bolling said they hope to reopen to the public next Monday.

Freezing temperatures in Ketchikan brought the mercury down to single digits at night and in the 20s during the day in Ketchikan in early February. That’s thought to have caused a pipe to burst on the top floor of the Zeigler building at UAS, with water flooding down to the second floor that houses the library and student center, said campus business manager Chris Hoyt.

“It soaked a good portion of the library and a good portion of the collection of books and the flooring,” Hoyt said. “We lost ceiling tile in that space. The water continued through the roof panels and went into the Student Center and did the same thing in there.”

Water continued to flow through the walls and floors, soaking portions of first-floor offices. Computers and workstations were damaged before the maintenance staff shut the water off after about 15 minutes. A thousand gallons of water had been released.

The sprinkler system triggered an alarm that called the fire department. Hoyt said it was “all hands on deck” to do what they could to rescue the campus’ library collection.

Fortunately, those cold temperatures also proved useful.

“It was still freezing weather, so that’s the best solution for a wet book — to get it frozen,” he said.

Freezing keeps the books from developing mold and mildew. To protect the books that remained indoors, temperatures in the library were kept low.

Campus librarian Kathy Bolling said commercial dehumidifiers and high-powered fans were deployed to dry everything out.

“If we’ve got 70-degree temperatures at 70% relative humidity for just a couple of days, that could have taken out the entire collection,” Bolling said.

That would be 33,000 books.

Books were put in carts and boxes based on the extent of saturation and stored outside to keep them cold until a freezer van arrived the next morning. And there they’ll remain until a plan is in place to restore them.

Some books may be beyond repair. Bolling said they’re not sure just how many. The UAS Ketchikan campus library has an academic library for its classes and research.

“We have such a unique collection. We’re going to do our best to salvage what we can and replace what we can, and try not to cry too much during that. This has been a library that’s been built over decades,” Bolling said.

One of the hardest hit areas is the Alaska Native culture and language collection. But Bolling said, fortunately, none of the rarest books were damaged.

Bolling describes the painstaking restoration process.

“Putting them upright, fanning the pages — of course, this is for hardbacks that can stand up — with fans in the room not pointed directly at the books and have a dehumidifier in that room,” Bolling said. “We’ll see, a day or two, how long it takes for those to dry out and then book press them.”

UAS Ketchikan staff is consulting with other libraries and experts to determine the best path to take to restore its now frozen collection. Despite the catastrophe, librarians are still checking out books remotely. The building, however, remains closed to the public until further notice.

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Maria Dudzak is a reporter at KRBD in Ketchikan.

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