Recovering from disaster

Charlotte Street in downtown Peterborough

Photo: Charlotte Street in downtown Peterborough


Jim Leonard

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: Jan 28, 2011

On the afternoon of July 14, 2004, the skies opened up over the city of Peterborough. Throughout the day, evening and especially overnight, the city was battered by a non-stop deluge of heavy, driving rain. The municipal storm sewer system was quickly overwhelmed.

In a 24-hour period, almost 240 millimetres of rain fell on a city that prior to 2002, (when Peterborough endured a much less severe flood) had never experienced any flooding at all – at least not since local weather statistics were first kept. Normally, only about 67 millimetres of rain falls in Peterborough for the entire month of July. Almost four times that volume fell in just one day during the 2004 flood.

The impact of the flood was widespread and devastating. By the morning of July 15, much of the city looked virtually unrecognizable. Streets and basements were heavily flooded as the intense, localized storm progressed. A state of emergency was declared.

The downtown core was hit especially hard. Standing water was over six feet deep in many areas. Streets were impassable.

The Peterborough Public Library, located in the heart of downtown, was heavily damaged. In the early morning hours of July 15, as the rainfall intensified, several heavy plate glass windows on the ground floor shattered under the weight of the flood waters that now engulfed the building. A torrent of sewage-contaminated water and debris spilled into the expansive lower level of the library, cresting to over 12 inches. Flooding impacted the reserve book collection and a nationally significant cultural treasure known as the Balsillie Collection of Roy Studio Images that had only recently been relocated.

The Balsillie Collection comprises over 300,000 historical images, mostly glass plate negatives. It represents a nearly complete body of work generated by Peterborough’s Roy Studio, one of Ontario’s most accomplished photography businesses. The Roy Studio flourished in Peterborough from 1896 to 1992. It documented every facet of life in an Ontario community for 100 years. Only a small handful of photo collections in Canada are comparable in size, scope and range of subject matter.

For several decades, the massive collection had been housed in a filthy, cave-like storage room in the basement of the old photo studio located just a few blocks from the library. In spring 2000, Jim Balsillie, co-owner of Research in Motion, purchased the collection and donated it to City of Peterborough. Staff with the Peterborough Museum and Archives then launched a painstaking cleaning, packing and relocation effort that took over two months to complete. The entire collection was safely relocated to a climate controlled, 400-square-foot, purpose-built storage facility in the Peterborough Public Library. A comprehensive archival conservation, cataloguing and digitization program was then launched.

The morning after the storm, City staff waded into the mess and began to assess the damage. It was determined that only about 10 per cent of the Roy Studio collection (or 30,000 negatives) had been submerged under flood water.

The City immediately called in ROSCO Document Restoration of Montreal and the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) to assist with salvage efforts and emergency planning. All agreed that time was the critical factor. The longer the negatives remained wet, the greater the risk of destruction. Those negatives not directly exposed to flood water faced a dramatic spike in relative humidity, and thus a very high risk of mould infestation.

The wet negatives and related material were removed from the library and placed in freezer trucks. They were slowly frozen to a temperature of minus 20 degrees Celsius to arrest mould growth, then transported to ROSCO facilities in Montreal.

Flood water was pumped out of the library and fans were installed to thwart mould growth. Contaminated drywall, damaged furniture and equipment were removed from the building.

For more than two years, ROSCO completed a careful stabilization of the affected negatives. Although only a small fraction of the total collection was damaged, it still represented several thousand negatives. Innovative conservation techniques were required to salvage such a large volume of fragile material. The negatives were freeze-dried, then cleaned and re-housed. They were returned safely to Peterborough in October 2006.

In the aftermath of the flood, museum staff undertook a comprehensive risk assessment of the library’s interim storage site, and installed a walk-in freezer vault at the Museum and Archives to store fragile film negatives from the collection. The most fragile negatives and prints damaged by the flood were digitized to capture and preserve the images.

Due to the quick and well coordinated response by City museum staff and its partners, including Fleming College, the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) and ROSCO, not one image was lost as a result of the 2004 flood.

In March 2007, the Peterborough Museum and Archives received the Canadian Museums Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in Conservation for its ground-breaking rescue and restoration efforts.

Lower level of the Peterborough Public Library

Photo: Lower level of the Peterborough Public Library

Lower level of the Peterborough Public Library

Photo: Lower level of the Peterborough Public Library

Emergency cleanup in the main storage facility of the library’s lower level

Photo: Emergency cleanup in the main storage facility of the library’s lower level