Getting the Wet Out : Freeze-Dry Process Saves Soaked Library Volumes


When a broken water main flooded portions of the Long Beach Public Library, officials knew just what to do to save the hundreds of bound magazine volumes that were soaked in the man-made deluge.

First, they had them put into a coma. Then they shipped them to Texas.

Now, after a week in a vacuum chamber, the magazines are back on the library shelves, not quite as good as new perhaps, but still usable and, most importantly, dry. Meanwhile, Long Beach library officials have gained some valuable experience in how to save library materials should another disaster occur.

The drama of the wet magazines began during a weekend in February when a main in the Civic Center Plaza burst and sent water pouring onto the west side of the library's ground level. By the time the leak was discovered, the carpet in the children's books and periodicals sections was soaked like a sponge; worse, water was leaking through the floor into the book and magazine storage areas below.

"It was like it was raining in here," said Eleanore Schmidt, associate director of the main library, pointing at the ceiling in the periodicals storage area. By the time she arrived, she said, there were two or three inches of water on the floor, and water was dripping onto the metal bookshelves.

Water is, of course, the mortal enemy of paper. Not only will it cause ink to bleed and pages to stick together, but when combined with the dust present on any library shelf it can prompt mold and mildew growth, which can spread through a library like a cancer, damaging books beyond any hope of repair.

Fortunately, library administrators had attended seminars on how to handle library disasters, including water damage, and they knew what to do. Library staff members all pitched in to stretch tarps over the shelves to protect the volumes. Blackmon-Mooring-Steamatic of Southern California, a Santa Fe Springs company, was called. It is a franchise of BMS Enterprises of Fort Worth, Tex., which started out 45 years ago as a carpet cleaning company and later went into the field of disaster cleanup.

"I went down there and assessed the situation," said Mitchell Parks, sales manager for the Santa Fe Springs firm. "I told them that time was of the essence." Any volumes that had sustained even slight water damage had to be identified immediately and segregated if they were to be saved.

BMS employees brought in huge dryers and dehumidifiers to get water out of the carpet and the air, and library staff members checked each volume in the flooded areas. Out of thousands of volumes, they found about a hundred children's books that could not be saved, along with about 250 volumes of bound periodicals that had sustained some water damage but were salvable.

The volumes included Literary Digests from 1912 to 1925, Saturday Evening Posts from the 1920s and '30s, some National Geographic magazines from the '30s and '40s, and, perhaps of lesser historical note, some Playboys from the mid-1960s.

"It was actually a minimal amount of damage," Schmidt said, compared to what could have happened. A few hundred volumes of the library's half-million-volume collection would not have been a crippling loss. Certainly the damage did not compare with the losses at the Los Angeles Central Library when it burned twice in 1986; more than 700,000 books were damaged by water used to battle the fires.

Also, Schmidt said, in Long Beach the water-damaged magazines were available on microfilm. So even if the bound volumes had been destroyed there were backups available--although color magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, and certainly Playboy, lose something when viewed on black-and-white microfilm.

To save what magazines they could, library officials and BMS employees boxed up 68 cartons of water-damaged volumes. They were "blast frozen" at 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit; within a few hours, the 68 boxes of wet magazines were frozen solid.

"The purpose of freezing is to stabilize the material so mold and mildew can't grow," said Tom Stanley of BMS Catastrophe Inc. of Fort Worth, another company under the corporate umbrella of BMS Enterprises. "It's like putting books or paper into a coma."

Once the magazines were comatose, they were shipped by frozen air freight to BMS facilities in Fort Worth. They were then loaded into a 1,500-cubic-foot vacuum chamber and freeze-dried for about a week.

"Water exists in three states," Stanley explained. "Liquid, solid (ice) and gaseous. By freeze-drying, we take water from the solid state directly to the gaseous state, bypassing the liquid state, which is what damages paper. Then we out-gas the moisture."

In other words, BMS sucked the frozen water out of the magazines without allowing it to become liquid again. Although the specific technology used by document restoration companies varies, freeze-drying is the generally accepted method of drying out water-damaged books and other paper materials. Water-damaged books from the Los Angeles Central Library also were restored by freeze-drying.

About three weeks after the Long Beach library flood, the bound magazines were trucked back and returned to the storage shelves.

"We were generally very pleased with the results," said Janet Rohloff, library administration officer. The cost of freeze-drying the magazines was $9,878; the entire library cleanup cost, including carpet drying and dehumidifying, was about $40,000.

So if you are looking for, say, a 1912 edition of Literary Digest, or a 1966 copy of Playboy, they are waiting on the shelves at the Long Beach Public Library. They are not all in pristine condition; some pages are wrinkled, and some color drawings have bled onto facing pages.

Still, they are in pretty good condition for having been drowned, frozen into a coma and then freeze-dried in Texas.

The Freeze-Drying Process

* Sodden books are placed in cardboard boxes.

* Book boxes are transported to the nearest cold-storage facility for "blast freezing" at 40 below zero.

* Frozen books are loaded onto refrigerator trucks and then onto aircraft for the flight to Texas.

* Books are transferred into a 1,500-cubic-foot freeze-drying chamber.

* Inside the chamber, the ice on the books is transformed into a vapor, bypassing water's liquid state; the vapor is sucked out of the chamber.

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