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UI Libraries restoring thousands of flood-damaged relics

Volunteers helped recover items damaged by Flood of 2008

Tim Walsh, volunteer and former director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, sprays water on a sheet to mist a book which will remove the wrinkles from the page as they work on cleaning items from the National Czech and Slovak Museum & Library and the African American Museum of Iowa that were damaged in the floods of 2008. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Tim Walsh, volunteer and former director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, sprays water on a sheet to mist a book which will remove the wrinkles from the page as they work on cleaning items from the National Czech and Slovak Museum & Library and the African American Museum of Iowa that were damaged in the floods of 2008. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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Employees with the National Czech and Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids expected to get up to a couple feet of water during the flood of 2008.

They got eight.

So even though they evacuated hundreds of valuables and moved any remaining books, phonograph records, posters and maps about three feet off the ground, the damage was immense. Losses totaled more than $11 million.

But even before floodwaters receded to reveal the level of destruction, preservation and conservation experts with the University of Iowa Libraries were providing help in the form of advice.

“Silly me, I thought it would take two years."

- Nancy Kraft

University of Iowa Libraries

 

“They were telling us, 'You are going to see piles of muddy mucky stuff,'” said David Muhlena, Czech Museum library director. “'Some things will be a total loss. Other things you can salvage.'”

“They gave us an idea that all was not lost.”

'Against the clock'

Once workers regained access to the 18,000-square-foot facility, staffers focused on salvaging anything and everything with potential to be restored. To keep ruinous mold and mildew from growing, Muhlena said, crews raced to get items as clean as possible and then into a freezer.

 

“We were against the clock there,” he said.

Down the road in Cedar Rapids, the African American Museum of Iowa was facing similar challenges. It took in 5.5 feet of floodwater that damaged more than half its collections and — in the end — required $1.3 million in repairs.

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Upon seeing the devastation, Nancy Kraft, head of the UI preservation and conservation department, called the UI Libraries director and asked if they could attempt to restore damaged artifacts at a reduced cost.

“I said, 'Can we do this?'” Kraft said. “They said, 'Yes, as long as you stay in the black.'”

That hasn't been easy.

“I was biting my fingernails for the first few months,” she said. “We were running in the red.”

But over the past seven years the UI Conservation Lab has managed to treat more than 8,000 items, 100 boxes of manuscripts and 11,000 single sheets of paper affected by the flood at a reduced cost thanks, in part, to the help of students and volunteers.

“If they went to a traditional conservation lab, it would have cost double,” she said, adding that a traditional lab also would have taken longer because it would have had to squeeze the Cedar Rapids project in among its other work.

“They were our only customers,” Kraft said.

And the work — with all its unexpected challenges and intricacies — still took much longer than expected.

“Silly me, I thought it would take two years,” Kraft said.

But with the massive restoration project expected to wrap this summer, the lab is reporting a 90 percent success rate in its attempts to save damaged materials. And, Kraft said, the museums weren't the only benefactors. The university discovered new treatment methods and bought new equipment specifically for the flood work.

“We learned a lot,” she said. “I'm sure some of new techniques we're now using in our regular workflow.”

'We felt an obligation'

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Among the new flood-related challenges UI conservationists faced were muck-drenched baskets and metal artifacts from the African American Museum of Iowa, along with phonograph records and aging books from its Czech counterpart.

“Our typical flattening process didn't work,” Kraft said about the need to find an alternate method for restoring books.

The new technique involved removing book covers, cleansing individual pages, drying, misting and flattening using a large vice-type press. Workers also used a sort of freeze-drying process that involved vacuum sealing.

“We had never cleaned baskets before. Each took 40 hours to clean.”

- Nancy Kraft

University of Iowa Libraries

They prioritized their work by those relics most valuable to the museums. Some of the damaged books, for example, had duplicates or could be replaced by donors. Others required urgent attention — such as the baskets from the African American Museum of Iowa.

“We had never cleaned baskets before,” Kraft said, forcing them to consult outside experts on the best technique. “Each took 40 hours to clean.”

Over the years, about 15 people worked on the project for the university — some full time, some part time, some students, some staff.

As a preservationist and Cedar Rapids resident, Kraft said, she felt a responsibility to help restore and maintain the heritage and culture of the museums and their relics — including the many that were donated.

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“If someone donates, it's a trust that we are going to take care of those materials,” she said. “So we felt an obligation to the donors to salvage what we could.”

'Imprint of the Cedar River'

Elizabeth Stone arrived in Iowa City as a master of fine arts student just months before the flood ravaged Eastern Iowa. She spent long hours as a student salvaging flood-damaged items for the UI Preservation and Conservation Department and joined the department staff after graduation as project conservator for the flood work.

Stone said seeing the project from start to finish has been educational and rewarding.

“I was interested in working in paper and books, but through this I worked on phonograph records, metal and baskets,” she said. “The baskets were really crazy.”

Stone said she's visited the Czech museum since starting the project and feels a strong connection to its collections.

“It was great to go around and be like, 'I remember cleaning that book,'” she said.

Muhlena said the UI Libraries, along with the Czech museum's donors and members, were paramount in restoring it to a thriving cultural icon. And, he said, even though some items were lost, “I sleep well at night.”

“I consider this to be a success story,” he added. “We salvaged thousands of items that were flood damaged, and we preserved the heritage of these items and what these items represent.”

Tim Walch, who spent extensive time restoring the flood-damaged relics for the UI Libraries, said those items no longer solely represent the Czech and Slovak culture.

“They now have the imprint of the Cedar River, too,” he said.

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