University of Iowa libraries help restore NCSML artifacts & manuscripts

UniversityIn 2008, Cedar Rapids experienced flooding that far and away exceeded the weather predictions residents had been given.  Experts predicted that the city would receive as much as two feet of flooding in certain areas.  Unfortunately for the National Czech and Slovak Museum & Library, they ended up with eight feet.  In an effort to protect their assets, the library staff had removed all books, manuscripts, and other materials from the bottom three feet of library storage.  Obviously, it wasn’t enough, and the damage that ensued was devastating.  Over $11 million in damage was incurred, and, needless to say, the staff was absolutely devastated.

Their moods, however, were lifted by the analysis of some experts from the University of Iowa’s libraries.  Experts began to offer up input on the damages, including the fact that more documents and treasures of the library than originally thought would be able to be salvaged.  Nancy Kraft, serving as head of the UI preservation and conservation department, started reaching out to the UI library director about how repairs could be completed at a reduced cost.

Over the next seven years, an extensive restoration effort would occur, involving over 11,000 sheets of paper, boxes upon boxes of manuscripts, and more than 8,000 assorted items.  The efforts were completed in a way that the library couldn’t have hoped to have found had they had to hire a for-profit entity.  This came largely in part from the fact that the library’s lab had the help of numerous volunteers and students who were eager for the opportunity to work with the collection’s expanse of historical documents.  Kraft estimates that having the restorations conducted elsewhere would have cost at least twice as much as what they had to spend – which could have pushed a business already operating dangerously close to the red over the edge.  Individual objects took as long as 40 hours or more to clean.

Now, however, the Czech museum is opening up its doors once again and is reporting that the restoration has been completed.  Now, details of the restoration are being shared as a “success story” and those involved want the details of the project shared with other library associations and branches that may have suffered from natural disasters in recent years.  Often times, libraries are already suffering from a lack of funding, and that can make the prospect of bouncing back from unexpected circumstances even more intimidating.

Tim Walch, who spent long hours helping to restore artifacts from the various UI libraries, said that the documents and materials may now rest back in their original cases and shelves, they represent more than possessions now.  Really, he says, the artifacts represent a community effort, and the hours and work put in by so many different individuals to ensure that such gems weren’t lost forever.  Going forward, libraries and collections like the ones under UI stewardship might be able to better prepare their facilities for disaster, but, until then, it’s at least good to know that precious pieces of history can still live on.