Trial by fire (and water): Safeguarding a world-class collection

Osler Library Recovery Team preserves and restores invaluable collection of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine and has it back in circulation just five months after serious fire
From left to right: Bozena Latincic, Octavian Sopt, Melissa Como, Francisco Oliva, Yves Beauchamp (Vice Principal, Administration and Finance), Principal Suzanne Fortier, Lily Szczygiel, Anna Di Pietro, Rebecca Nicholson, Jacquelyn Sundberg and Liliana Ospina Owen Egan / Joni Dufour

During the Fall Convocation ceremonies on October 29, the Osler Library Recovery Team was awarded the 2019 Principal’s Award for Administrative and Support Staff – Team Project Category for preserving and moving the rare and circulating collections and making these holdings accessible in record time after the McIntyre fire.

Early Friday evening July 13, 2018, firefighters were called to McGill’s McIntyre Medical Building to put out a fire on the outdoor terrace. Thankfully, no injuries were reported, however the roof was destroyed and water entered the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, which houses one of the premier history of medicine collections in the world. There was great concern as the Osler Library’s 100,000 works include rare historical material as well as current books and periodicals.

The fire proved to be galvanizing. As soon as it was safe to be on site, a group of Library administrative and support staff members led by librarians, archivists and art curators, worked with the members from an external company providing emergency restoration services to pack and freeze wet books to prevent further damage until they could be freeze-dried. The Osler Library Recovery Team was born.

“Although the scope of the operation was daunting, the Osler Recovery team worked with determination, professionalism and remarkable speed,” said Angela Campbell, during the presentation ceremony. “They managed to complete their complex, multifaceted task in record time, making the collection available again to the McGill community and the public after four short months.”

Congratulations to the members of Osler Library Recovery Team, recipients of the 2019 Principal’s Award for Administrative and Support Staff in the Team Project Category.

Francisco Oliva, Manager Planning & Resources; Liliana Ospina, Assistant Project Manager in User Services; and Octavian Sopt, Senior Documentation Technician in Rare Books and Special Collections spoke to the McGill Reporter about their experience. To see pictures of the recovery process, click here.

How extensive was the damage? What kind of damage are we talking about? Was anything irreparably damaged?

All: The work spaces on the third and fourth floors of McIntyre that house rare Osler materials were affected by smoke and water infiltration. Depending on the location of the shelves, part of the collection had to be freeze-dried immediately to avoid mold growth. Other sections had to be tested for ash residue, still others only for smell. 600 volumes from the circulating collection were damaged beyond repair; a further 800 needed repair. Most of the collection has been restored. The entire collection (~100,000 items) needed to be moved quickly to avoid more damage caused by humidity in the space.

What was your reaction when you first got into the library?

Francisco Oliva (FO): At that point the extent of damaged wasn’t fully assessed so we had to be prepared for the worst. We also knew that no restoration work could begin until all books were out of the premises as the collection was just underneath the terrace, which is where the fire took place.

Octavian Sopt (OS): Being the middle of the summer, with temperatures higher than 35 degrees Celsius, it was quite a shock to enter the very hot library space with temperatures easily over 40 degrees Celsius. The smell of smoke lingered heavily and both the third and fourth floors of the library looked like a set from a post-apocalyptic movie – there were large plastic tubes connected to vents in order to vacuum the remaining smoke, there were zippered tarps over the doors to minimize the infiltration of smoke from one room to another.

What are the challenges when dealing with old and rare books – especially ones that need to be “brought back” from smoke and water damage? 

OS: The main challenge with rare books is their importance and fragility. One doesn’t want to mishandle a rare book – damaging or destroying an item that could actually be unique in the world is a heavy blow for knowledge, and our mission is the preservation of knowledge and providing access to future. The challenges with recovering items that were already damaged by water and smoke involved employing specialized techniques, such as freeze-drying, to minimize the risk of secondary effects while attempting to dry or clean a book.

Liliana Ospina (LO): The handling of a unique and exquisite collection requires technical knowledge on how to manipulate books from different ages, size formats, type of covers; in addition, dealing with post-fire conditions adds additional stress to the situation. For instance, in order to move the books out of the premises, we had to individually wrap each book on acid free paper and placed them on archival boxes padded with more paper so that books stay put (spine down or on the side) during transportation. In addition, a full inventory needed to be created to make sure all boxes and items were accounted for in a systematic and secure way.

Is it true that some of the collection had to be freeze dried to minimize damage. What other techniques were employed?

OS: Yes, freeze-drying was used for the books that were determined to have suffered from water infiltration. Other than that, careful wrapping and boxing of each item in preparation for relocation was the main protective method employed.

FO: For the artwork, art conservators were called in to assess the damage and restauration procedures. All books then had to pass a deodorization phase offsite prior to sending them back to McGill. Some items are still at the emergency recovery facility.

Were people working individually, or was teamwork an important part of the process?

OS: Teamwork was vital. The entire operation would have crumbled had people worked individually. It was an amazing display of various departments coming together, collaborating in order to rescue a library and to make it available in record time.

LO: Yes, teamwork was the key element for the success of this project. Time, accuracy, proper care of the collection and security were of utmost importance to the whole team. Since the collection is significant and the levels of humidity were high (69 per cent) there was pressure from various units to move fast.

How was the team put together?

FO: A call for volunteers was sent to library staff to begin the preparation and supervision of the removal of the books from the premises. Due to the building conditions (i.e. no HVAC, low light, smoke smell, etc.), an initial roster of 11 supervisors was identified and a schedule of 3 hour shifts was put into place to begin the work. As the access conditions to the building improved, a larger number of volunteers (30+) rolled up their sleeves and came to help.

Tell us more about the team and their work.

All: After attending one conservator-led training session, each member of the Osler Recovery Team made sure that all the teams of movers safely packed materials, used the correct techniques, labelled boxes in shelf order, etc. Professional movers were brought on board to assist.

The team set up efficient and ergonomic workstations to allow teams to pack items safely and maintain the highest handling standards all while making steady progress. Teams of 12 worked ten-hour days from July through September 2018 to safely wrap, pack, move, unwrap and re-shelve the collection in its new location.

Beyond the packing and preserving of materials, coordination and communication work with internal and external partners was undertaken on related projects. A huge effort from library staff members from Collection Services and Digital Initiatives departments was also made to ensure that holdings information in the catalogue remain accurate and up-to-date as the status of the collections changed. Osler Recovery Team members are from numerous departments within the Library system.

Where is the collection now? Is it accessible to the public?

All: The Osler Library of Medicine Rare collection is temporarily located within the department of Rare Books and Special Collections, on the 4th floor of the McLennan Library Building. The Osler circulating collection is located in the basement of the Redpath Library Building. Both collections, have been available since late December / early January, roughly five months after the fire.

Looking back at the experience, what stands out most in your mind? 

OS: So many people who have, or have not worked together in the past came together to execute an immense project with clockwork efficiency. Despite plans being laid out for the project, we sometimes needed to adapt and improvise – i.e. boxes not coming down to McLennan in the right order, etc. – which at the end of the day were non-issues that didn’t disrupt the general flow of the recovery project.

FO: What stands most is the level of collaboration and integration from all the McGill departments and the companies that helped us out during this difficult time.

LO: We had hard days with long hours but what remains in my mind is the satisfaction of being able to give a hand in a difficult time to preserve this irreplaceable collection that McGill stewards.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

OS: I am grateful for having been nominated to, and winning, the Principal’s Award with my fellow colleagues, and I am happy to have been involved in such a major project and contributed to its success.

LO: What a humongous effort from everyone.

FO: I would just say, “where there’s a will, theres’ a way!”

In May, the Library announced that the Osler Library of the History of Medicine will be rebuilt in McIntyre as per pre-fire conditions.