When the Georgetown public library went up in flames last week, a small but close-knit group of conservators banded together to try to save the slew of historical documents housed in the building.
Library of Congress staffers were among those involved in the effort, helping to line up freezer trucks so that the water-soaked historic papers, books and artwork recovered from the library’s Peabody Room would not be further damaged from mold.
“From their Web site, it was really clear what was in the room, and from talking to them, it seemed apparent that a great deal of that material could be frozen,” said Andrew Robb, a conservator at the LOC. “We have so many conservators here, that part of the challenge with this incident was making sure the information they were getting was helpful to them but not overwhelming.”
When the fire first broke out, it was feared that the entire collection in the library’s treasured Peabody Room, which includes historic maps, land deeds, house titles and a slew of other documents related to the history of Georgetown, would be destroyed.
Much of the library itself was lost in the fire, but firefighters and other personnel were able to rescue a great deal of the historic documents, most of which were damaged by water.
Shortly after the fire, LOC officials got on the phone with organizations such as the Washington Conservation Guild and Smithsonian Institution to figure out exactly what was needed at the site. They decided lining up freezer trucks was the best way to help, Robb said.
“The thing about these kinds of situations is that [while] the items are frozen … they still require conservation treatment,” Robb said.
While water damage seriously can hurt historic material, Robb said, it does not necessarily mean the documents will be destroyed. If the material can be quickly frozen, it can buy time for conservators to come up with a game plan to repair the documents.
Robb pointed to a recent trip he took to the University of Hawaii to look at historic documents that had been frozen following flood damage from an incident in 2004.
“I was just there last month to really figure out the best ways to unfreeze them,” Robb said.
So at the Georgetown library, restorators must work to come up with a similar game plan.
Leading the effort is library contractor Belfor Property Restoration, which began extracting rare books, papers, maps, ceramics and textiles from the scene as soon as fire personnel gave clearance.
Belfor, which specializes in mold remediation and document reclamation, was expected to send the Peabody Room’s collection to several of its facilities for treatment, according to a Georgetown library news release. Paper-based collections were to go to the main facility in Fort Worth, Texas, while wood carvings, china and textiles were sent to another Belfor site in nearby Sterling, Va.
The nearly 30 paintings taken from the scene were sent to Page Conservation Inc., which will be in charge of restoring the library’s art collection, according to the release.
Meanwhile, the Smithsonian’s Book Conservation Laboratory already has begun efforts to restore the library’s historic books, and The Washington Post rushed rolls of unprinted newsprint to help dry and save the library’s print and paper collection.
About 80 percent of the documents are expected to be restored, officials said, in part because of the quick efforts to freeze everything.
“There’s always something about an incident that you can learn from, but I think that an important collection was saved, and that’s what matters,” Robb said.