Climate Change Blog Post 2: Sustainability in light of disaster

In light of this year’s conference theme, Practical Philosophy or Making Conservation Work, the Sustainability Committee would like to highlight how something as intangible as climate change directly affects the practical side of conservation.
This is 2 of 3 in the series of blog posts that explores this relationship. In this one we offer a case study of how climate change affected one institution.

Climate change may seem like an esoteric topic to the average conservator until it hits close to home. In the summer of 2012, parts of the American Midwest experienced drought conditions. Extreme heat, coupled with severe cold the previous winter, led to pavement shifting and subsequent water main breaks. In fact, in the greater Kansas City area, dozens of water main breaks occurred daily at the peak of the summer of 2012.
On August 1, 2012, Lawrence, Kansas, experienced near record high heat. That morning, when staff entered the Murphy Art and Architecture Library at the University of Kansas (KU), located below grade on the first floor of the university art museum, water was rushing in from the ceiling. The art museum was situated halfway down a steep hill, and a water main break in the road above led to water entering the building and traveling down to the library. The force of the water inundated the 14,000 square foot space, covering the floor with many inches of water in short time, and drenching the library stacks with water on the way down.
Ceiling tiles and wet floor after a water main break in the University of Kansas art library. Courtesy University of Kansas Libraries.

Ceiling tiles and dirty water remain after the water from the ceiling stopped. Image: University of Kansas Libraries

Luckily, the University of Kansas Libraries had a disaster plan in place and quickly came up with a recovery plan. Nearly one-hundred volunteers helped remove wet books from the space on the day of the disaster and package them for transport from the library. The combined staff contribution was 279 work hours on the day of the disaster, and subsequent work on further days added many additional hours of staff labor.
Boxing wet books for removal to an off-site drying facility. Courtesy University of Kansas Libraries.

Books packed in boxes for removal to the disaster recovery company. Image: University of Kansas Libraries

The Collections Emergency Response Team worked with university leaders to contract with a disaster recovery company that vacuum-freeze-dried over 17,000 volumes. While better than 97% of the volumes were recovered, thanks to significant planning and training before the event, the toll on the conservation lab was still significant. In fact, between the disaster in August and the following February, the staff in the Stannard Conservation Laboratory focused almost entirely on treatment of materials recovered from the disaster. All but the most urgent outside treatment requests were put on hold.
Industrial dehumidification equipment.

Industrial dehumidification equipment used to dry out the space. Image: University of Kansas Libraries

The damage to the library building was extensive, and the library was closed for over a month. Because the space had to be rebuilt from the ground up, 26,000 volumes not affected by the water main break still had to be moved from the space. Drywall was cut up to 24 inches from the floor to prevent mold growth, so books on wall-mounted shelves had to be removed. Likewise, soggy carpet had to be discarded, requiring that books on bottom shelves in freestanding shelving ranges be relocated. Staff volunteered 212 hours of their time to help place these books on trucks, and hired contractors moved them to a location across campus. Although in an ideal world the collections would not have been returned to a basement-grade location, space restrictions necessitated reusing the existing library.
Rebuilding compact shelving after a disaster. Courtesy University of Kansas Libraries.

Rebuilding compact shelving from scratch. Image: University of Kansas Libraries

In this one, but fairly typical, example, the resources that went into recovering the collections and library space were extensive: nearly five hundred hours of staff time were diverted from other projects to remove books from the space and six months of conservation staff time were focused almost exclusively on recovery of collections. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this experience is that extreme heat and cold may occur in future years and such a disaster could possibly be repeated. Certainly there are extensive references available to aid us in preparing for a likely disaster, but do we have adequate training to respond to the often very large events that result from climate change? Are we prepared to reserve the resources—financial, personnel, supplies—that such disaster may take? How can we sustain our collections without taxing limited resources?
Email us at or post a comment below.