Rain soaks state archives

Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2009

The 4-inch-thick vault door on the ground floor of the Alaska State Archives building will keep a lot of things out -- but not water from the floor above, state workers learned Monday morning.

Storm gusts blew a temporary roof covering off the Willoughby Avenue building, subjecting to rain 14-foot racks filled with hundreds of shelved boxes containing historical documents. Some of the water found its way into 70-year-old schematics of state buildings in one corner of the vault room below.

The rain tripped an alarm system at about 5:30 a.m. Monday, and Dean Dawson arrived into work at about 7:15.

"I knew exactly what had happened. They were working on the roof and I heard water dripping and my heart sank," the state records manager said.

Contractors CBC Construction of Sitka have been working on the roof, he said.

There was so much water in the building when Dawson arrived that he feared electrocution might be an issue for state library, archive and museum employees mobilized for the document emergency. Community volunteers and professional conservators who serendipitously happen to be in Juneau for the Western Association for Art Conservation conference also are helping out.

Dawson said when the mushiest boxes were taken off the shelf, water splashed to the floor.

In the second floor room that was hardest hit, Dawson estimates 400 to 500 boxes, each containing 1 cubic foot of materials, were affected. The boxes contained records from courts, the Legislature and Governor's Office, many dating back decades before statehood.

With the help of the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, state workers turned the nearby Juneau Arts & Culture Center into a document triage. A white panel truck unloaded the boxes -- the ones most soaked through arrived in garbage bags -- and the contents within were carefully laid out on tables to dry.

"Most of them we can probably resurrect," said Linda Thibodeau, director of the state Division of Libraries, Archives & Museums.

In the rack room, a spot of pulpy paper mush on floor told the story of some documents that were beyond restoration.

Industrial fans and dehumidifiers whirred away noisily in both locations. Dawson said it's likely someone would have to stay in the archives building overnight to empty the dehumidifiers and make sure nothing shorts out.

By noon Monday, most of the standing water had been vacuumed off the floor and various nooks of the archives building. The archives will be closed to the public until further notice.

Contact Jeremy Hsieh by e-mail jeremy.hsieh@juneauempire.com.

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