Vinegar and floodwater

The river is rising, and more rain is coming.

I work downtown, a short stroll from the river, and the thing to do these days is to take that stroll at lunchtime and stare at the muddy water as it streams past. Levees have given way upstream, and even local neighborhoods have been evacuated. Record flooding is happening all over the place. I saw my first record-breaking flood the month I turned ten, and witnessed several similar floods over the years, which is why my childhood home was bought by the government and leveled.

I remember carrying things out of the basement when I was a child to rescue them from coming floods. I didn’t think I would be doing that again, certainly not at work. But last Wednesday the building managers had a series of worried meetings as they considered the worst-case scenario for this flood event. The building is protected by a rarely-needed sump pump. The pump had not even been checked for several years. Management hired some specialists to check the pump on Friday, but meanwhile they also considered the option that a power failure might occur over the weekend, rendering the pump powerless. So, management decided to have all the employees drop what we were doing and carry things up out of the basement.

Several different entities are in the building—some related to one another, others merely renting space. Tenants include branches of the state university, attorneys, and even a vegetarian restaurant. The building itself is part of the public library system; it contains the library’s archives, the library’s art collection (aside from objects currently on display in other library buildings), art galleries (one of which sells locally-created art), and several other library departments. The basement contained (until the end of last week) storage for the art collection and for the archival items received but not yet processed. In other words, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind items (some quite valuable) were threatened by the flood. It made sense to bring it all upstairs.

People sometimes donate unique items to the library, which is why it maintains an archive. In the library’s archives are family records and photo albums, business records, church records, government records, and the like. The library owns letters and diaries written by soldiers during the Civil War. It holds Red Cross records, Garden Club records, school records, and thousands of photographs from earlier times. People use the library’s archives to study the history of railroads, the local fire department, historic people buried in local cemeteries, and their own families. People come to learn the history of the house where they live or of a business building they are remodeling. Not all this information was threatened by the flood—the material that has been processed is safely stored higher in the building. But who can say what information is hiding in the material not yet processed? Not to mention the art collection—it all had to be moved.

The research room is open nine hours a day, six days a week. Junior high students and university professors might be working within touching distance on their different projects. Books have been published based on information available only in this building. Many of the people who come—roughly half of them I would guess—are researching their genealogy. And, because there is a restaurant on the first floor, researchers and librarians sometimes smell the food being prepared. One day last week, the restaurant workers were roasting garlic—the scent reminded me of my mother’s zucchini recipe, fried in a skillet with garlic and herbs and a little vegetable oil. Other days the research room smells of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.

This morning the research room smelled like Harvard beets. Those are beets cooked in vinegar. This time the restaurant was not to blame. Among the items brought up from the basement are several canisters of film. Old film made of cellulose acetate plastic can chemically disintegrate, and the most obvious symptom of that disintegration is a vinegary scent. The library has one full-time employee whose task is to convert older records, whether audio or video, into a digital format before the original is lost beyond hope of recovery. These donated films are now sitting up on the third floor, undergoing chemical change, and the scent wafts down the atrium into other parts of the building.

The river continues to rise. No one knows how many days the library’s art collection will be sitting in hallways and meeting rooms and nooks and crannies all over the building. No one knows how many days the unprocessed archives will continue to form a maze between offices. A potential catastrophe has been averted, but it was done through many hours of hard labor and with no small inconvenience to the library’s staff. J.

Painting books

The most important words in my job description are “and other duties as required.” Those other duties have included setting up chairs, putting away chairs, building shelves, selling popcorn and candy bars and beer, and moving ten tons of paper in one day. My latest accomplishment, though, has taken me by surprise. My boss has me down in the basement painting books.

It’s not exactly painting that I’m doing; it’s more sealing the covers of books. These are large ledger books with red leather covers. Some of them are more than one hundred years old. Even under the best conditions, leather deteriorates over time. A product is made that, although it cannot reverse the deterioration that has already happened, it can cover up the leather and prevent further deterioration.

The mixture of chemicals I’m using has the viscosity of egg white, and it smells like a doctor’s office. The smell is caused by isopropyl alcohol, the chemical that evaporates to leave the surface sealed. I’m using sponge brushes with wooden handles to apply this stuff to the book covers. Hence, I tell people that this week I am painting books.

When my boss assigned me this task, he told me that I would be working in the basement so that the smell would not bother my co-workers. He also suggested I not do this task for too long at one time. “I don’t want to find you passed out on the floor down here,” he said. So I am taking the job about eight books at a time, then letting them dry and doing other things before I return for the next eight books.

They are huge and heavy ledger books. My boss didn’t give me detailed instructions on how to do this job, but I’ve painted houses before, and I’ve sealed wood on a deck. I was sure I could figure out a successful procedure. I pick up each book, make a note of what it contains (because at the end I’ll need a list of all the books in the set), and brush the cover lightly with a cleaning brush to remove any dust or other particles. Then I lay the book on a table and paint the front cover. I then slide my hand under the book and turn it so I can paint the spine. Then I lay the book down again and start the next book. After about three books, the cover of the first book is dry, so I can flip it on its front cover and paint the back.

I haven’t mentioned this to my boss, but last month I hurt my arm moving furniture at home. Now I’ve got a steady ache around my elbow that sometimes twinges when I reach for something (like a door) or when I grasp something (like a ledger book). The pain is survivable, but I doubt I’m doing whatever muscle or ligament is stressed by carrying heavy books and painting them.

Aside from that, the work is quite pleasant. The basement is quiet and still. The books look beautiful when they get their wet cover of sealant. Of course the sealant is clear when it dries, so the old scars and stains reappear. Even so, the sealed books have a greater vibrancy of red with gold trim than those books I have not yet sealed.

Today they tested the fire alarm at work. Of course they sent an email out first, telling employees we would not need to evacuate the building. Of course I was in the basement painting books and didn’t get the email. The first time the alarm sounded, I thought for a second about whether or not I should leave, decided to leave, screwed the cover on the sealant container, and headed for the door. I had just gone up the stairs and reached the door to the parking lot when the alarm stopped. I didn’t see other employees standing outside, so I figured it was safe to get back to work. The second time the alarm sounded I thought for a few seconds, decided it was smarter to leave, and was halfway across the basement when the alarm stopped. After that, the other tests were so brief that I didn’t even have time to think about leaving before I knew I didn’t need to leave.

By the end of the week I should have all the books painted, and I should have the list of books ready so other people know where to find these books. I’m curious about what other new and unique opportunities I’ll have at this job the rest of the month.

J.