Rare books, imprints damaged in Jones Library water leak

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  • Jones Library special collections curator Cyndi Harbeson checks for remaining moisture in one of the books damaged by a leak from the HVAC system discovered on Monday. Many of the 700 books pulled from the affected shelves have been set out to dry with the help of fans. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jones Library special collections curator Cyndi Harbeson checks for remaining moisture in one of the books damaged by a leak from the HVAC system that was discovered on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • According to Jones Library special collections curator Cyndi Harbeson, a box containing these Henry Jackson photograph albums, which document the Black community living in Amherst in the 19th century, was heavily damaged by a leak on Monday, but she was relieved to find that the volumes themselves appear to have escaped significant damage. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Materials associated with the David Chapin Kinsey Memorial Garden are set out to dry on the floor of the Jones Library special collections area on Wednesday, July 15, 2020, in Amherst. They were among the items affected by a leak from the library's HVAC system discovered on Monday. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This area of the Jones Library special collections is remaining under tarps after it was affected by a leak from the HVAC system discovered on Monday. The same area has suffered damage from the HVAC system before. Photographed on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • After a leak was discovered in the stacks of the special collections at the Jones Library on Monday, the affected books were carefully opened and set out to dry with the help of fans. Photographed on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • After a leak was discovered in the stacks of the special collections at the Jones Library on Monday, the affected books were carefully opened and set out to dry with the help of fans. Photographed on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jones Library in Amherst. FIILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2020 2:45:25 PM

AMHERST — Rare volumes written by lexicographer Noah Webster, poets Helen Hunt Jackson and Julius Lester and geologist Edward Hitchcock are among items in the Jones Library’s special collections department damaged this week by a malfunctioning heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.

Special collections curator Cynthia Harbeson said in an email that a water leak on Monday, caused by a backup in a condensation drain, drenched a section of the room where Amherst authors, imprints and manuscript collections are stored.

When the leak was discovered by staff, Harbeson said 710 books and 12 manuscript boxes were removed from shelves, with 157 of the books already determined to be damaged by the water.

“It is too soon to tell whether or not we’ll be able to save them all, though I suspect we will lose a few of them,” Harbeson said.

The incident marked the fourth significant leak in the storage stacks at special collections since Harbeson started in the position five years ago. Three of the leaks have occurred in one specific area, meaning the same books have been in jeopardy of being damaged repeatedly, Harbeson said.

Special collections is divided between a portion original to the 1928 library building, including where many of the materials are stored, and the 1993 addition.

The latest leak comes as administrators and elected trustees support a $35.6 million project to renovate and expand the Jones Library that is dependent on a construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

During a meeting with the Town Council Monday, cost estimates for just repairing and making the building handicapped accessible were presented in the range from $14.4 million to $16.8 million.

Library Director Sharon Sharry told councilors that she informed the Joint Capital Planning Committee last year about the possibility of the need for a one-time expenditure to make repairs to the HVAC system before any large-scale project begins.

Library Trustee Alex Lefebvre said in August 2019 the same issue with the system developed from the need to run air conditioning 24 hours a day.

“This has become a recurring problem,” Lefebvre said, adding that the HVAC system is at the end of its lifespan.

The problem last August was caught in time before causing significant damage. Trustee Tamson Ely said that leak could have led to catastrophe if it had happened on a weekend or when staff was not in the library.

In addition, Sharry has appealed to the Community Preservation Act Committee for $1 million to help construct a new special collections room, though that committee recently turned down the request, but offered library officials a chance to revisit the decision.

In a memo to the CPA Committee, Sharry explained the dangers posed for materials, stating that “The long-term consequences for the collections under the circumstances presently in effect are disastrous. They are at risk due to lack of climate control, lack of space and lack of security, and the longer they remain improperly housed, the more severe the damage to the collections.”

Sharry added, “The fluctuating temperatures are causing one-of-a-kind historic materials to deteriorate. The location of the main storage area directly below the frequently leaking HVAC system has also caused many historic items, including books and other artifacts, to be irreparably damaged by water.”

In addition to the books that were damaged, Harbeson said the water got into what she describes as “very rare imprints” from the early 19th century and some of the manuscript collections, including First National Bank of Amherst records and scrapbooks associated with the Kinsey Memorial Garden, the greenspace situated to the rear of the building created in 2000.

Henry Jackson photograph albums, one of the few pieces of the special collections that document the Black community living in Amherst in the 19th century, were also affected, though Harbeson said the leak was discovered in time to avoid significant damage to these.

Other items affected by the water leak included early 18th century documents related to Amherst before it was incorporated as its own town in 1759, records of the Amherst Garden Club and correspondence by 19th century artist Ira Chafee Goodell.

A ceiling tile also fell on one of the frames in the Fine Arts Collection, causing minor damage. Harbeson said there will be an ongoing determination about materials that can be saved.

“We should know more about how successful our efforts to salvage the materials have been by the end of the week,” Harbeson said.

To protect the items in the meantime, Harbeson said shelves will be covered in tarps. Moving to another part of the building isn’t possible due to space limitations and the potential of leaving the items unprotected.

“We had not kept the tarps up in the past because of how difficult it is to access the materials underneath them, but must act in the best interests of our collection’s long-term preservation rather than its accessibility,” Harbeson said.

Besides limiting access, the tarps also pose some risk of creating micro-climates and hinder airflow, Harbeson said, meaning there is a need to remain vigilant to protect materials.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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