Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 17
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
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Almost Two Feet of Water Threatens Archival Documents at Sarnoff Library

Linda Arntzenius

Since the nor'easter struck Princeton last week, Alex Magoun has had his hands full, and wet besides.

The executive director of the David Sarnoff Library located just off Washington Road in Princeton Junction has been attempting to dry out 600 cubic feet of archival documents that were damaged after the basement in which they were stored was flooded by some 20 inches of water.

The collection includes 30 drawers of notebooks covering the period from 1942 to 1960, technical reports, manuals, and manuscript collections, much of which was soaked, according to Mr. Magoun, who arrived to find pallets of paper documents afloat in the basement instrument room. "It looked like the Titanic," he said. "Most of the documents were at least 12 inches off the floor and we've never had more than 5 inches of water before so this was not something we anticipated."

"These unique collections represent the patrimony of RCA," said Mr. Magoun. "They document staff creativity in research, development, engineering, and producing the communications and information technologies used around the world."

The flood has threatened documents such as photo albums from the Charles Jennings collection that was acquired by the archives last year. "Mr. Jennings was RCA's man in Japan for half a century and this material documents his career and, as a parallel, the development of Japan during that period," he said.

"Archives are living organisms," he said. "After developing this library for the last 10 years of my life, it was distressing to see the devastation wrought by the storm. The water went into the bottom two drawers of our filing cabinets."

A large number of unique documents from the Prince-ton Labs, the RCA Lancaster and Broadcast Divisions, Camden and other New Jersey locations were stored in the archives, a record of the birth of modern communications, from broadcast microphones to color TV picture tubes, from satellite communications to the microchips that surround us in cars, computers, and cell phones.

The flooding highlights the library's need for drier storage. Currently, archives are housed in the basement of the Sarnoff Corporation. "We are very grateful to the Sarnoff Corporation for this space, which the corporation allows us free use of, but corporate archival material of this nature needs dry conditions."

Mr. Magoun sent out a call for help on April 18 to the Friends of the David Sarnoff Library.

So far, the response has been gratifying, he said, with thanks to the Friends of the Library and the Sarnoff family for coming to the rescue and to the Sarnoff Corporation for pumping out most of the water. "There are people who recognize what this collected material represents — the history of color television, integrated electronics — all that was developed here. It's like Thomas Edison in the 20th century. While this is not a library that the general public would use, it is important to researchers," said Mr. Magoun who anticipates that the clean up will take three to four weeks with the help of Document Reprocessors of Rochester, New York, a document freeze-drying specialist recommended by Princeton University and the New Jersey State Archives. The company committed to the project from the moment Mr. Magoun contacted them, offering a 50 percent discount to the library whose liability insurance does not cover flooding.

Last week the company sent a crew to repack the collections, track them, and transport the frozen boxes to its facility in Rochester, NY, where staff will work on flattening and drying the documents through a patented process.

According to estimates, it will cost around $60,000 — $100 per cubic foot — to deal with the damage, money that will eat into the library's modest budget. "We are a research library as much as a museum," said Mr. Magoun who hopes that media attention might draw more friends to the library.

The public is also invited to help by adopting a folder for $25, a carton for $100, or a cabinet for $1,000. Tax deductible donations can be sent to the David Sarnoff Library, 201 Washington Road, CN 5300, Princeton, NJ 08543-5300, or via Paypal ( to donations at

For more information, call (609) 734-2636 or visit or

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