In the very early hours of the morning of April 29, 2017, one week before the end of the spring semester at the University of the Arts, an 8-inch water service line pipe burst in the basement of Anderson Hall where the lower level of the Albert M. Greenfield Library resides. Twelve feet of water quickly filled the basement and covered everything. Almost half of the library’s print collection—over 25,000 volumes of books, 10,500 volumes of periodicals—the Archives and Textile collections, Picture File, reading room, and the contents of staff offices and spaces were affected. Fortunately, the technical services librarian, whose office is in the basement, had taken her laptop home for the weekend!
Before and after
Once the water was pumped out of the building, the Archives and Textile collections were quickly identified as the most important collections to be removed as soon as possible for freeze-drying. These collections are essentially irreplaceable. Staff who live near the building arrived the next day to identify those materials for the reclamation company on the job. With the support of other librarians, I made the decision to declare the rest of the collection a total loss. Having gone through a less devastating water event in the past and seeing the results of freeze-drying on books that were totally saturated, this seemed the best course of action for over 35,000 books and periodical volumes. There was simply no way for us to quickly prioritize books for freeze-drying with less-than-ideal results. In addition to being soaking wet, books were scattered throughout the space and interspersed with shattered glass, toppled bookshelves that had been pulled from the walls, furniture that had been moved by the force of the water, and other debris. It was also not safe for us to stay in the space for more than a very short period of time. On top of that, the licenses and inspections department of the City of Philadelphia quickly placed a cease-occupancy order on the building so we were not permitted to enter any space in the building without an escort, and only for a short period of time to gather essentials. Many people, both within and outside of the university community, offered their assistance but there was little anyone could do with this order in place. In the end, everything that had been in the basement other than the Archives and Textile collections was discarded due to quick deterioration.
Water pressure does crazy things to books
All library staff and operations were moved to the Music Library—housed in the Merriam Theater Building just a block away from the Greenfield Library—on the Monday morning after the flood. The first thing we did was gather together over coffee and donuts so I could share the information I had and try to assure everyone that we’d get through this together, and to strategize about how to maintain library services. With the help of the Music Library staff, the displaced staff found spots for their new “offices.” Carrels used for audio equipment were converted into staff workspaces, Music Library circulation staff graciously made room at the circulation desk area for the displaced circulation staff, spaces in the reading room were claimed, and the music reference librarian happily squeezed two of us into his office. We were literally in every nook and cranny. The resilient library staff adapted very quickly and developed stronger bonds and working relationships.
Being in close proximity to one another was a silver lining during a very difficult time; it increased and enhanced our communications and taught me, for one, to change my habits once we moved back into the Greenfield Library. I now think twice before sending off emails and, instead, often pick up the phone or walk to other offices to speak with people. I hope we will have the opportunity in the not-so-distant future to use what we learned to configure some staff spaces that offer privacy but are also conducive to more collaborative and personal interactions.
The outpouring of concern and support from colleagues like all of you, and others from inside and outside the university gave our spirits a tremendous boost and helped ease our anxiety. Frequent snacks brought in by very kind faculty and staff, support from other departments in the building, and a library staff field trip helped, too!
Our field trip to the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia
We moved back into the first floor of the Greenfield Library almost exactly four months after the flood and just in time for the Libraries’ annual Open House and the first day of classes of the fall semester. The space is half of what we had before the flood and it has been a challenge to find spaces for two staff and the student assistants whose workspaces were in the basement, and for the books returned or acquired over the summer. We are busy purchasing materials lost in the flood that are needed by students and faculty, and processing the many replacement donations of books that have been streaming in from friends and colleagues (thank you!). Our communications to the university community at the time of and since the flood have focused on the fact that we were and are still able to provide the same excellent services as we did before the flood. Thanks to the dedicated, hard-working, professional, and service-oriented library staff, I am happy to say that we have done just that, and may even be providing better and more attentive services to the University of the Arts community.
After several months of gathering data for them (and explaining serial titles vs. volumes and other library specifics), we are in the final stages of working with reclamation and insurance companies and in the first stages of planning for the future of the UArts Libraries. Although we will rebuild parts of the collections, we will say farewell to others and determine what kinds of spaces will best serve our community going forward. We will use what we learned from this event to make strategic decisions about the future. Stay tuned!
Carol Graney, Associate Provost and Director of University Libraries
The University of the Arts