Flood-damaged archival materials being restored, building undergoing repairs  

January 25, 2023
Water damaged materials from the Special Collections at the Health Sciences Library.
Photo by Paul Lewame

The VCU Health Sciences Library on the MCV Campus is slowly recovering from water damage incurred during the Winter Break. All study rooms and the lower level Collaboration Room remain closed while repairs are made. 

A leaking water pipe caused the damage. The original library building–opened in 1932–was closed for Winter Break with building inspectors walking through every three days. It appears that a pipe in a fan coil unit used to heat/cool spaces in one of the second-floor group study rooms froze, creating a one-inch slit in the pipe. Hot water flooded several group study rooms on the second floor and cascaded through the building to the basement where archival materials were stored.

Additionally, the water created excessive steam in the study rooms and offices causing significant damage. Water from the burst pipes leaked out windows and created exterior icicles that were visible from 12th Street. Along with carpet adhesive releasing, the standing water and humidity buckled paint on interior walls. Ceiling tiles were damaged on every level.  Four staff offices along the Pastore Historical Hall sustained varying levels of damage from the flood.

The VCU Libraries was notified of the flood the evening of Monday, December 26. It is unclear when the rupture occurred but in all likelihood, the pipe froze on December 23 or 24.  

Construction crews are now replacing ceilings, repairing drywall, plaster, carpet and painting. It is estimated that the group study rooms will remain closed through February. 

Slow and meticulous conservation and salvage work is also underway on archival materials. More than 70 archival boxes were saturated with moisture. While these boxes are designed to wick moisture away from contents, they become ineffective when saturated and not salvaged in a timely manner. University archival materials, documents, and publications were in the boxes.  

Materials were quickly removed from the impacted area, dried and subsequently rehoused with appropriate archival supplies. Some items will require additional conservation treatment. Collections Care Librarian and Conservator Nora Bloch said:  "We are collaborating with Special Collections staff in an ongoing effort to humidify and flatten unique archival items that warped from water damage and will continue to clean items with mold growth.”Fortunately, VCU Libraries has duplicate copies of some of the damaged items and some have  been digitized.   

The flood sheds light on continual challenges VCU Libraries' staff faces in safely storing and preserving archival materials in an old building with ground floor and basement storage. “We are currently investigating additional safeguards to ensure Special Collections and Archives materials are not impacted in the future,” said Special Collections and Archives Head Chrystal Carpenter.

Collections Care Librarian and Conservator Nora Bloch added:  "We are collaborating with Special Collections staff in an ongoing effort to humidify and flatten unique archival items that warped from water damage and will continue to clean items with mold growth.”

A lynchpin of that future is a planned expansion of the archives in James Branch Cabell Library. Located on the fourth floor of the recently renovated library on the Monroe Park Campus, the expansion will provide storage with robust security and climate control. Private funds are now being raised for this building enhancement project. Additionally, the current Six-Year Capital Plan calls for a new interdisciplinary health sciences building in the 2026-2028 biennium that would house a new health sciences library.

The Winter Break flood is not the library’s first water problem. Large water supply lines transit the Health Sciences Library basement, providing hot and cold water for the Richmond Academy of Medicine, VCU Health Sciences Research Building and Annex, Strauss Research Building and VCU School of Dentistry. In 2004, one of these large supply lines ruptured and flooded the basement of the 1932 building. The rupture was discovered almost immediately. There have been several other small leaks over the years but the 2022 flood is the most damaging to date.   

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