August 1993

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Resuscitating A Water-Logged Library


John H. Martin

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It was not until February 1973, seven months after the flood, that work could truly begin on book restoration. Actual restoration would not start for still another month, but a number of inter-connected problems had to be faced first. Without an insurance settlement it would be necessary to borrow against the regular operating budget to support the restoration project. Clearly this could endanger the regular operations of the museum. Until the restoration project began, however, it would not be possible to estimate either the time such a restoration would take or what its cost would be. Without such figures there could be no settlement with the insurance company in order to obtain the money needed to undertake restoration.

The project had to get moving. A restoration assembly line was set up. Money was borrowed, and book restoration proceeded concurrently with learning how to estimate the cost of restoration for the insurance claim.

The program began with moves in two directions. First, 200 of the most valuable books were sent to Carolyn Horton in their frozen state to be restored under her meticulous care. The remaining rare books would be handled in-house. Next, an experienced paper conservator was hired to be assisted by local women and students working part-time. Also, a chemist was employed to supervise the work so that the paper being restored would not unwittingly be damaged. He was also commissioned to try new or unorthodox techniques to help reduce restoration time.

It soon became obvious that a freezer truck crammed with boxes of frozen books presented a monumental logistical problem.

The truck was so crowded that there was no room to sort the boxes for assembling books of like nature. If books could not be grouped together by type, an assembly line could not be set up. To accept books haphazardly from boxes would mean a program of almost individualized treatment. As a final blow, the truck frequently refused to work at night or on weekends! One such failure of the truck's freezing unit brought the interior temperature from zero to 30 degrees before it was realized that something was amiss. The books could have been lost to mold after all.

The solution was to order two walk-in freezers, each one 20' x 12' in size, and erect them within the restoration building. The boxes were removed from the truck, thawed slightly for identification of the books, and then repacked in smaller boxes after sorting by type of paper.

To treat every book and record in the files would have meant individual handling, a task of five years or more. But there was not time or money or staff for a job of such magnitude. Moreover the temporary library building was scheduled for demolition under an urban renewal plan. There was no other place to move, though, since all other suitable buildings had been destroyed.

A basic decision was reached: The restoration job would be completed by Christmas, 1975, and all planning and efforts would be bent toward this goal. It was agreed, first of all, that all volumes from the regular collection that could be purchased for less than $50 per volume (and less than $300 per volume from the antiquarian collection) would automatically be discarded. The insurance companies agreed to this program. The reasoning, which the underwriters understood, was that it would cost at least as much—and probably more—to restore the individual volumes.

It was also decided to discard the periodical collection. Either this would be replaced through purchase (second hand) or would be purchased in microform. (The Kraus company was most generous in helping in this area, and they deserve credit for their assistance.) If it wasn't possible to rebuy the journals, permission to microfilm journals either in situ or through loan would be obtained.

Book dealers throughout the world were solicited for their catalogs so out-of-print volumes could be purchased as they appeared. The staff also went to New York City to buy in the secondhand market. Foreign language book dealers were also commissioned to assist us in the search-since much of the collection is in languages other than English.

Because the library holdings date from the thirteenth century, it soon became obvious that no more than 15 to 20 percent of our collection could be repurchased in the market Up to 85 percent would have to be restored.

In the sorting and preparation to move books into the walk-in freezers, every volume had been handled and its condition recorded on a worksheet in multiple copies. One sheet remained with the book, one went to the librarian, and one went to the conservator. As a book came out of the freezer, tbe conservator noted on its attached sheet the librarian's considered judgment on whether to restore fully by traditional methods, restore fully by new methods, or hold for future consideration. Volumes in the last category were those it was hoped could be found on the open market. It they were not found before the restoration process was nearing its end, these would be restored as well.

The two types of restoration—by traditional methods and by innovative methods—represented a major policy choice in order to complete the task within the time allotted. As a result the collection was divided in two, with the rarer books being cared for in accordance with established procedures while other volumes-those of more informational than intrinsic value- receiving innovative handling.

A National Museums Act grant from the Smithsonian Institution permitted the hiring of a research chemist for technical advice. With his and the paper conservator's assistance, three approaches were agreed upon: traditional techniques of drying, dielectric drying and freeze-vacuum drying.

Traditional Techniques of Drying

Volumes of intrinsic value in their original condition (i.e., because of their age, publisher, previous ownership, or association) were thawed, removed from their bindings, separated into signatures and then pages, and washed in water with brushes to remove mud and staining. They were then de-acidified and the pages dried, either by laying them out on long trestle tables covered with clean newsprint or by hanging them on nylon fishline drying racks which had been constructed. (Valuable bindings were also dried and saved, at least for the time being.)

Pages were collated, sterilized, and wrapped for storage until they could be microfilmed. Each packet had its identification sheet with the complete history of its restoration attached to the paper wrapping. Its LC number or another identifying mark was placed on the spine of the packet.

Dielectric Drying

Through the assistance of friends in the Corning Glass Works, a dielectric CP 30 dryer was obtained. This device is about as large as a refrigerator, and it has a door that opens into a chamber about 8" high by 20" wide. Inside are two electrode plates between which a frozen volume is placed. When the door is closed a burst of electrical energy is shot through the frozen book to dry it. It was soon discovered that the covers would have to be removed from all books being treated, since they contained much water, making the task of drying the inner leaves more difficult. Not only were covers removed from books, but any staples, paper clips (in the case of files), or other metal also had to be removed. Otherwise an arcing occurred between the electrodes and charring or burning resulted.

By trial and error the duration and the number of electrical bursts necessary to dry the various kinds and sizes of books was worked out. Once norms and procedures had been established, like items were grouped to simplify our task.

Since it was not known if permanent damage to the paper was being done with the electrical charge (e.g., prematurely aging it), the collection was further segregated so that books which were valuable but did not quite fit into the category for traditional handling were thawed, but not dried, by the dielectric method. They were then washed, if necessary, before being de-acidified, and dried leaf by leaf. In addition all dried papers were sterilized in a vacuum fumigation chamber in order to prevent further spore growth.

Freeze-vacuum drying

Much thought was given to freeze-vacuum drying, but it was decided that the technique was not then practical. To begin with, there were no such units near. Second, most units were too small to handle materials in the amount at hand. Third, would books with coated paper "block" into a solid mass in the drying process? Since museum book collections have many books with plates, there can be a great loss because the coated paper on which plates are printed tends to become solid after wetting and exposure to air.

Last, and of most concern was the consideration that freeze-vacuum drying would not remove the mud or stain on the papers. It would then be necessary to rewash all such dried volumes, and it might not be possible to eradicate all the flood stains. Some medieval parchment manuscripts, however, were sent to the Library of Congress for freeze-drying.

Microwave drying was also tried but was not satisfactory.

By the end of the first year (using the above techniques), 3,000 books and boxes of files had been dried and cleaned, and were ready for microfilming. By this time the scientist had worked out the chemistry of coated paper, discovering how and why it tends to turn into a solid mass after wetting and then drying. Based on his experiments the remaining frozen volumes (primarily of coated paper) were taken by refrigerator truck to Valley Forge, Pa., to the General Electric "space chamber" to have them thawed and vacuum dried within the parameters he had determined.

After the nine-day process, 100 books were still damp and 25 were wet, but 95 percent of the coated stock was saved, the first time that such success has been achieved. The five-percent loss probably occurred because some books had become too dry through sublimation in the freezer; the paper had solidified before being placed in the vacuum chamber.

The dried but still dirty books were brought back to the restoration building, where the staff spent the next eight months removing the dirt with architectural dry-cleaning pads. In December, 1974, the book restoration department closed, 12 months ahead of schedule. All 6,500 books were dry and clean, and all 30 cartons of files were also dry. Innumerable prints, photographs, and audio tapes were restored as well.

The last phase of restoration followed. The entire collection was microfilmed and fiched. This was done for a number of reasons:

To preserve the information in the books restored—books that may disintegrate at a more rapid rate than is normal, due to the damage they have sustained. To duplicate the collection as insurance against another catastrophe. Therefore two microfilm copies of the collection were made: the master copy for storage in safe vaults outside the valley and one for use in microfiche form within the library. To not only make handling by the curators and by visiting scholars easier, but to help out-of- area researchers as well. The library is more than happy to have scholars make use of the collections. The library, however, is reluctant to mail one-of-a-kind volumes on interlibrary loan. With in- house fiche duplicating equip ment, copies of fiche can be mailed. To one day be able to make portions of the library available to specific libraries in the United States and abroad in exchange for the privilege of microfilming items in their collections the library doesn't have.

Through microfilm a valuable collection will be protected against future loss and made more readily available with due regard to copyright laws.

The three-and-a-half year period after the flood was a difficult one for the library which continued to offer reference services to the world, to build its collections, and at the same time to be involved in a salvage and restoration undertaking which few libraries in the Western hemisphere had faced. In their spare time staff members have taught conservation seminars so that others might profit from our misfortunes.

Wilson Library Bulletin, Nov 1975. Reprinted by Permission.
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