Burst sprinkler damages more than 330,000 books in UTC library flood

Firefighters had trouble turning off sprinkler in new library

The second floor of the UTC Library is closed off Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016.
photo Chantelle Swaren, Assessment and Outreach Librarian moves shelves while checking books for damage at the University of Tennessee Library Tuesday, February 9, 2016.

A burst sprinkler in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's new $48 million library caused water damage to two-thirds of the half-million books in the facility and led to the basement floor, which includes most of the library's print collection, being closed to the public.

"They did their best, the staff and students, to triage the books as quickly as possible," said Kirk Englehardt, the university's vice chancellor for marketing and communication.

Englehardt spoke this week as UTC officials talked with off-campus workers about ways to repair the floor so the basement may be open to students and the public by the end of this month. The malfunction occurred in late January.

Englehardt said the incident could have been weather-related, because it got really cold that night.

Firefighters came with tarpaulins within minutes but had trouble turning off the sprinkler, Englehardt said. Students, staff and firefighters dropped tarps to preserve thousands of books that otherwise would have been destroyed, he said.

The cleanup plan is to pull up the wet carpet and buff the floors so the basement can be reopened. Then school officials will focus on replacing the carpet by summer, said Chuck Cantrell, UTC's associate vice chancellor of marketing and communications.

The major work is taking place on the facility's ground level. Full recovery is going to take a while, officials said.

photo Chantelle Swaren, Assessment and Outreach Librarian checks books for damage at the University of Tennessee Library Tuesday, February 9, 2016.

Learn more

For more library updates go to utc.edu/library/about/flood-recovery-update.php.

On the first floor, which has some study areas open to students, yellow caution tape hangs on rectangular columns marking off a bare floor that once contained books, movies and music. Englehardt said Wednesday he isn't sure when the books will be replaced, but school officials and students are working as quickly as possible.

The upside of the library damage is that UTC is hiring students to help with the cleanup, said Kelley Hensley, a 20-year-old junior who worked in the library Wednesday. And the books were insured by the state.

The frustration for workers is getting students the books they need in a timely manner. Sometimes students wait as long as 24 hours, when the books once were readily available, Hensley said.

Chappell Craw, who is majoring in family and child studies, said it's hard finding space in the library to study because some of the study rooms have been shut off.

The library is the preferred place to study because the wireless Internet is slower elsewhere on campus and printers run out of ink, she said.

Natalie Irwin, a 21-year-old early childhood education major, said she misses the easy access to children's books that were once on the first floor. Now she goes to the public library.

UTC personnel put 9,000 books, those most damaged by water, into an industrial freezer specifically for books. Those books are en route to Texas for a special de-freeze process, and officials expect them to be returned within four to six weeks.

Freezing the books keeps mold from growing in them and gives school officials time to decide which books they want to replace.

Moisture that could cause the books to mold reduces as the books are slowly warmed. But thawing out the books is an expensive process, so library officials may decide it's more cost effective to just replace some of them.

On Wednesday, UTC officials said they didn't have an estimate for the amount of overall damage.

UTC's Library Flood Recovery Update page on its website states staff members use Ambassador Books and Amazon to price items, but by Wednesday some books still were not priced.

The good news is the library's most rare and expensive books, those that cannot be replaced or would be extremely difficult to replace, are on the building's upper floors and were not affected by water damage, Englehardt said.

The sprinkler malfunction comes just one year after the library opened in January 2015. UTC officials say they don't know the cause of the malfunction, whether it was construction- or weather-related, but they hope more sections of the library will be open within weeks, Cantrell said.

Some books still may be unavailable because they're being repaired or replaced, he said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.