What Happens When the Library Roof Catches Fire?

The short answer to that question is a lot of work, countless cardboard boxes, unimaginable reams of acid-free tissue paper, innumerable man-hours, and a long-term recovery plan. The long answer is, like so many stories, best told in photos.


Burnt-out terrace of the McEntyre Medical Building following the fire of July 13th.

On Friday, 13 July 2018, the terrace on the roof of the Osler Library caught fire (see footage of the fire here). Quick action by the Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal (SIM) prevented greater damage. However the roof was destroyed and its drains failed, causing water to enter the library below. The terrace of the McIntrye Medical Building is pictured here on 14 July after it was safe for first responders and McGill Library staff to enter the building.


photo of the osler niche in the Osler Room

Right below this terrace lies the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, one of the premier collections on the history of medicine in the world. Sir William Osler, noted doctor, educator, and bibliophile, collected widely in the history of western and eastern medicine. The Osler Room, designed by Architect Percy Nobbs, is pictured here. Mary Yearl is head librarian of the Osler library. Following the fire, she and the Osler staff have been serving the library community from the 4th floor of the McLennan Library building.


Since water leaked through the compromised drains, members of the SIM protected the circulating collection with tarps as soon as possible (see picture above right). Shelves and work surfaces throughout the library were protected with plastic sheets. As soon as it was safe to be on site, Library staff members Rare Books Librarian Christopher Lyons, Director of University Archives Yves Lapointe, and Director of the Visual Arts Collection Gwendolyn Owens were on site, working with the members of Premiere Action/First on Site to pack and freeze wet books to prevent further damage until they could be freeze-dried.


A true team effort followed that first response. Due to the water damage, the level of smoke smell, extraordinarily high temperatures during summer months when air conditioning had to be closed, and high humidity levels in the building after the fire, the entire collection needed to be moved out for safekeeping. After training from a conservator, teams from King’s Moving company, First on Site, and volunteers from the McGill Library packed and supervised moving the collection. The Osler room can be seen here in August as a select team packed the rare and valuable pre-1840 items and Osler’s own writings, in a climate controlled space with a dedicated HVAC system. This HVAC system helped protect the room (and those working in it!) from the high humidity and temperatures in the rest of the library. Teams of 12 worked 10-hour days from July through September to securely and safely wrap, pack, move, unwrap and re-shelve the collection in its new location.


team of kings movers packing in osler, the process of packing and wrapping the extra large items

Packing and moving the collection was a monumental project. Teams from McGill Facilities, McGill Library managers and librarians, and the movers and packers all worked together to free up 2 km of shelf space in Rare Books and Special Collections, in the McLennan Library Building. The elephant folios, the largest book format, and many anatomical atlases and artifacts like the one pictured above left, were a particular challenge to safely wrap and pack. The elephant folios were each individually wrapped by Rare Books staff. They sit (above right) awaiting final packing before being moved.


Some of the Library staff from Facilities, HSSL, Collection Services, Digital Initiatives, Archives, Rare Books, and the Osler Library for the History of Medicine demonstrating real interdisciplinary enthusiasm and terrible lifting technique. Don’t worry, we left the heavy lifting to the professionals!


books in stacks, packed art in boxes, and packing supplies.

After countless hours, boxes, pallets, and sheets of tissue paper later, the collection was safely installed on the fourth floor by the end of September. The materials were accessible to students, scholars and faculty by request, and the collection has been actively used throughout the term.


Group taking a break in the Colgate room while unpacking books.

After being freeze-dried and passing sniff-testing at the First on Site facility, the remainder of the collection was ready for its new home in the McLennan library building. From September through November smaller teams worked alongside Rare Books, library, and Osler Staff to ingest the collection.


The Wellcome Camera, stripped to the terracotta for renovation after the water damage from the fire. While the building undergoes repairs, the Osler library has a home with Rare Books and Special Collections. Thanks to our colleagues in Collection Services, the collection is now reservable in McGill Library’s online library catalogue as well. The man-hours of moving the physical collection also required a huge effort on the digital side to make sure holdings information in the catalogue was accurate and up-to-date as the status of the collections changed.


Osler programming, exhibitions and events are now taking place in the McLennan Library building. In October, Osler and ROAAr welcomed Prof. Hélène Cazes for a lecture on the impact of Andreas Vesalius’ The Fabric of the Human Body, pictured here. A new Osler exhibition, curated by Shana Cooperstein, entitled Freaks and Monsters will be installed in the new year.


So what does happen when the library roof catches fire? A team of extraordinary people come together to safeguard the collection and to make it accessible to all. A heartfelt thanks to everyone who made it possible!


The Library is pleased to report that the Osler Library of the History of Medicine will be rebuilt as per pre-fire conditions. Reconstruction work will be coordinated by Facilities Management and Ancillary Services in collaboration with the Library and the Faculty of Medicine. For the most recent update on the status of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, click here.

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