Libraries Distribute Protective Book Bags

Austin Powers can claim, "It's not my bag, baby," but if he tries to check out books from the Harvard University libraries he'll soon discover it is his bag.

In an effort to promote the proper care and preservation of Harvard's library collection, University libraries are now distributing plastic bags to protect books during inclement weather.

Sporting the message "Wet library books? Call us," the bag provides a hotline number for borrowers with damaged books.

The hotline, manned by the eight members of the new Library Collections "Emergency Team," "prevents [the situation] where someone has an accident on Friday night and can't tell anyone about it until Monday morning when it's too late," said Jan Merrill Oldham, Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian.

The service is required because moisture can quickly damage a book in a variety of ways. Merrill-Oldham said the usual method for treating a wet book is to wrap the book in plastic and immediately freeze it so mold will not begin to grow on the book.

The libraries formerly used gas ethyl oxide to kill mold on the books, but the federal government has since lowered the legal amount available to institutions.

Merrill-Oldham said the change in federal law is part of what prompted the new effort. "Since [the government lowered the legal limits] we really haven't had a good way to deal with mold. Disaster response is all that more important," she said.

The bags are only a small part of increased efforts within the library Preservation Services Department.

According to Merrill-Oldham, "the bags are evidence of something much more systemic going on. The libraries have been writing disaster plans for a long time....When a problem occurs, if you don't have a well ordered reaction plan, you run the risk of losing a much larger percentage of materials."

The disaster response and prevention measures are receiving funding from a variety of sources including the capital campaign, private foundations, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University.

In a letter addressed to the Universitylibraries, Merrill-Oldham said the funds are alsogoing toward such initiatives as small grouptraining sessions for the Widener Stacks Division.During the sessions librarians are instructed onthe handling of wet books and papers.

Merrill-Oldham also said in the latteremergency "reusable disaster recovery boxes" tofreeze-dry damaged books are being stocked in thelibraries and in the age of the online library, aweb site will also launch at

But for Harvard students, the most visible partof the disaster prevention initiative will be thebags. Beth Brainard, communications officer of theHarvard College libraries, said the bags, locatedat the circulation and checkout desks, will not beforced upon students, but she said she hopesstudents will use and re-use them