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Special Collections and University Archives relocates after facing damage from Tropical Storm Ida

The former location of the Special Collections and University Archives in Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus was prone to flooding due to its drainage system and closeness to the Raritan River.  – Photo by Rutgers.edu

Due to flooding damages from Tropical Storm Ida in early September, the University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives (SC/UA) has been suspended since Oct. 15, with plans to resume limited services on Jan. 10, 2022.

Formerly located on the lower level of Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus, the SC/UA hosts the Sinclair New Jersey Collection, Manuscript Collection, Rare Book and Book Arts Collection and Rutgers University Archives.

Sonia Yaco, associate director and head of the SC/UA, said Tropical Storm Ida brought a downfall of 9 inches of rain into the building, flooding the floors with approximately 3 inches of water.

She said conditions in the space stayed that way for 48 hours, affecting supplies, walls and shelving. Yaco said while none of the collections were damaged, moisture on shelving caused mold to form and forced the SC/UA to be relocated.

“It’s horrific. It’s like a scientist being without a lab — if you’re a historian, and you don’t have access to the raw goods of history, it’s hard to teach some classes. It’s hard to do your own research. We have many people in the midst of writing theses, writing books, documentaries and can’t get access to the material,” she said. “And coming on the heels of (the pandemic) it’s particularly vexing since we just had opened up again, and now we’re having to limit access.”

Flooding in the SC/UA, Yaco said, was particularly intense due to poor drainage in the area and its proximity to the Raritan River. The building’s drains lead down to the river, so upon any circumstances that they get clogged, the water seeps up through the floors of the library and causes flooding, she said.

Yaco said flooding has been a recurring issue since the 1990s when SC/UA was moved into the lower level of the Alexander Library, with at least 15 floods occurring in the space since then. She said the archives were originally on the upper floor of the building but were moved downstairs when the library was expanded.

Andy Urban, a professor in the Department of American Studies and History, said the SC/UA’s faculty and staff have been advocating for a new space for at least 10 years, but their concerns have not been addressed by the University.

“Special Collections and University Archives faculty and staff have been raising concerns about the conditions for years,” he said. “If someone had listened, this might not have happened.”

University spokesperson Carissa Sestito confirmed this was not the first time the SC/UA has faced water infiltration issues.

"There have been intermittent water infiltration issues in the past affecting the SC/UA, all of which were addressed at the time of the incidents," she said. "(Though), the most recent flooding during Ida was caused by extensive rain and a blocked drain line outside of the building — the drain line repairs were completed last month."

Sestito said that the University, along with the library staff, are looking to identify a future location for the collections with temperature and humidity-controlled storage areas as well as increased space to store necessary equipment for conservation, preservation and digitization work.

"This space would also facilitate user interaction with the collection materials and a provide an area where we can collaborate with our campus and community partners on exhibits and events," she said.

The Clifford Case room in Alexander Library will serve as a temporary reading room for when the SC/UA opens in a limited manner on Jan. 10, 2022.

Urban said that since most of the SC/UA is unavailable online, any damage to the collections could potentially make it impossible for students to continue to access the resource. He said Rutgers should prioritize providing the SC/UA with a new space, but said this seems unlikely given the poor treatment the archives have received from the University.

Beyond the physical space, Urban said the archives and Rutgers libraries have generally experienced a lack of funding and proper staffing. For example, the University has not efficiently replaced key archive staff positions such as the head of preservation and the University archivist, he said.

"(University President Jonathan) Holloway has spoken about the impact that seeing materials from Special Collections at Yale had on him when he was a student, so there is a bitter irony that he did not take the lead in ensuring that Rutgers students would have the same experience," Urban said. “If you want the libraries to be the center of a ‘beloved community,’ to use President Holloway’s favorite phrase, you need to be willing to support them financially and to invest in the people who work there.”

Marisa Fuentes, associate professor in the Department of History and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, said the records of the SC/UA were a crucial part of the research that she conducted as one of the co-editors on the Scarlet and Black Project, a three-volume historical exploration of slavery, race and student activism at Rutgers.

“(The SC/UA has) rich, historic records about Rutgers and New Jersey history that date back to the 18th century. They cannot be replaced, so it’s critically important to preserve them,” she said. “Moreover, the librarians and archivists we worked with for the project are indispensable to our research and the academic community in general.”

Fuentes said the SC/UA has received neglect from the University over the decades, citing a lack of prioritizing research and the libraries in general.

“Over the last 10 years, the libraries have canceled crucial and high ranking journal subscriptions and have not replaced them," she said. "There are books we cannot get at our own library and have to borrow from elsewhere. This is unacceptable for a top (public) research university."

Urban also said that Rutgers neglected to repair and renovate University buildings when they were empty during the pandemic, and now, workspaces, classrooms and residence halls are undergoing damages.

In response to these conditions, he said the American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers has an ongoing Rutgers’ Worst Workspace contest, created to call attention to the state of Rutgers facilities. Urban said he tweeted photos shared with him of the damage to SC/UA to call the University to action.

“Faculty and staff are clearly frustrated by having to work in buildings that are falling apart, and that are allowed to be damaged, as was the case with Special Collections and University Archives, and it takes a toll on student morale as well,” he said.


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