Wilson Library to undergo mass sprinkler installation

One of the University’s oldest libraries and home to scores of irreplaceable documents is especially vulnerable to fire damage.

Wilson Library ­— which holds a variety of rare historical collections — was completed in 1929, before fire codes required sprinklers in University buildings.

“If Wilson Library caught on fire today, and had a good blaze going, (the fire department) would have virtually no chance of saving it,” said Dan Jones, chief of the Chapel Hill Fire Department.

But a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will soon make the library better equipped to keep its rare collections from being lost.

The grant — given by the Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections program— provided $400,000 to install sprinklers in the special collections rooms. The grant was matched by the University for a total of $800,000.

“Having a sprinkler head in the room is like having a firefighter on stand-by,” Jones said.

But Wilson Library isn’t the last campus library without sprinklers. Davis Library, built in 1978, also lacks sprinklers, said campus Fire Marshal Billy Mitchell.

Mitchell said the University would like to update the building’s safety, but lacks the necessary funds. University buildings are not required to abide by updated fire codes until they are renovated, he said.

Work on the Wilson Library project began in late May and is expected to conclude by September 2012.

Throughout the 2011-2012 academic year, students and researchers can expect short-term unavailability of some collections at the library.

Richard Szary, director of Wilson Library, said he hopes to begin the closures in the next two weeks, but that the dates have not been determined.

To minimize inconvenience to patrons, the library staff is working to accommodate use of materials from closed collections, as long as researchers request the material before the closing.

When plans for installing sprinklers began, some library officials expressed worries about leaky sprinklers that could damage collections.

Szary said staff ultimately decided the benefits outweighed the risks.

“Wet books are easier to deal with than burnt ones,” Szary said. “Burnt books are gone.”

Szary said there are methods of saving water-damaged books, such as freezer drying, which involves freezing wet books quickly to minimize damage.

Jones said properly installed sprinklers are rarely tripped on accident, adding that they are only likely to leak if damaged by blunt force or by natural disaster.

Adding sprinklers to the collection’s shelving areas could be the beginning of a larger renovation project that could total $12 million. But the University cannot allocate the funds in the current budget climate, Szary said.

The project would install sprinklers in the entire building and add two external staircases and general improvements to the interior of the building.

Contact the University Editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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