It takes a certain type of person to clean floodwater muck off of delicate baskets, historical books, and vinyl records.
“You have to be patient. You have to have steady hands. And you have to pay attention—you have to keep observing and testing,” says Nancy Kraft, head of the preservation department at University of Iowa Libraries. One wrong move, she explains, and you could destroy the item you’re trying to preserve.
When Kraft saw the devastation this summer’s floods wrought on two Cedar Rapids museums—the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa, and the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library—she wanted to provide that skill and attention to detail to help them recover as much of their collections as possible.
So her department, which normally cares only for University materials, offered to help.
Restoring and preserving historic objects and documents can be expensive: University of Iowa fees usually run about $120 per hour. These rates were cut in half.
“We’re a part of the community, and I just want to help the museums save as much as I can,” says Kraft, who lives in Cedar Rapids. “Our goal right now is not to become a regional conservation lab, but just to offer a service to the community and recover our costs.”
Kraft brought in conservators from around the country to train UI staff—who specialize in paper preservation—on techniques for working with materials like baskets, metals, and wood. In addition, her department, which is also doing some postflood document restoration work for the Johnson County Historical Society, offered to store damaged materials rent-free during what could be a long recovery period.
Items ranging from books and LPs to handmade baskets and antique muskets are being stored and worked on in various rooms throughout the Main Library and the University of Iowa Research Park in Coralville. Storage rooms are outfitted with deodorizers in an effort to counter any lingering flood stench, and conservators wear masks when necessary to filter out the smell.
“It’s painstaking work,” says Caitlin Moore, collections recovery conservation lab technician. “You have to take breaks, switch back and forth between projects, find something to keep you from going crazy. Depending on what the project is, what materials we’re using, it can take up to 25 hours to restore a single item.”
Most paper items were freeze-dried by companies in Chicago and Fort Worth, Texas, before being sent to the University for restoration, but other items came straight from the museums.
Kraft believes her staff will be able to salvage about “90 percent, maybe more” of the material because the museums were storing many documents in preservation boxes that helped protect them from the floodwater.
“If we lose more than that, it will be because (the museums) don’t have the funds, not because it’s not salvageable,” Kraft says. “Sometimes the cost of restoration just isn’t worthwhile. They’re going to have to make some tough decisions.”
The proximity of the University to these museums will make those decisions a little bit easier. “They have the luxury of coming down here and talking to us and actually looking at the items and discussing what we should do with them,” Kraft says.
Those face-to-face meetings would be much more difficult if the museums had to travel to a regional conservation center in Chicago, Minneapolis, or Omaha. Most of those centers are full anyway, Kraft says. And because their fees are higher, museums would likely have to pare down their collections, Moore adds.
Still, restoring the thousands of flood-damaged items will take months.
“I’m hoping we can get the majority done in two years,” Kraft says. “It’s a lengthy process.”
By Anne Kapler