The Library to the Rescue

(The following is a story in the January/February 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

Library of Congress restoration specialist William Berwick took this photograph of the New York State Library's folio edition of John James Audubon's "Birds of America" in the aftermath of the 1911 fire. Manuscript Division.

Library of Congress restoration specialist William Berwick took this photograph of the New York State Library’s folio edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” in the aftermath of the 1911 fire. Manuscript Division.

The Library of Congress has a long tradition of assisting other institutions in preserving their collections.

Nearly a century after the Library of Congress collection was destroyed by a fire in the U.S. Capitol building in 1814, the New York State Library in Albany, N.Y., experienced a similar fate.

On March 29, 1911, just weeks before the New York State Library was scheduled to move to the newly constructed State Education Building, a fire ravaged the State Capitol, which housed the library. While parts of the building were unaffected, the State Library and its collection of 600,000 volumes were badly damaged. As the New York State National Guard worked to secure the building and safeguard its contents, a member of the staff of the Library of Congress helped to preserve the collections of the State Library.

William Berwick, a bookbinder at the Government Printing Office, had been detailed to the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress in 1899. Berwick quickly established himself as the American master in the Vatican technique of silking, as well as other restoration techniques. The technique–adhering silk gauze to both sides of a deteriorated document–was state-of-the-art at the time. Berwick directed the State Library staff in the restoration of John James Audubon’s priceless “double-elephant” folios of hand-colored plates illustrating more than 700 species of North American birds published between 1826 and 1838.

November 1966 witnessed the flooding of the Arno River in Florence, Italy, which damaged millions of art masterpieces and rare books housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Library of Congress staff were among the volunteers led by British bookbinder and conservator Peter Waters, who were dispatched to clean, dry and re-bind some of the library’s most valuable volumes. Waters, who had trained at the Royal Academy of Art, was subsequently appointed head of the newly created Restoration Division (today the Conservation Division) at the Library of Congress, and served in that position until his retirement in 1995.

In the five decades following the Florence Floods, the Library’s trained staff has continued to assist in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters at home and abroad. For example, Library conservators were dispatched to the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg following a devastating fire in 1988. In 2003, they helped reconstruct the National Library of Iraq, which was destroyed under Saddam Hussein’s regime, and they advised on the establishment of a memorial archive following the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech. Most recently, Library staff helped with disaster-recovery efforts following the earthquake in Japan and the fire at the Institut d’Egypte in Cairo. Library conservators have provided training to personnel in the national libraries, museums and archives of more than a dozen countries throughout the world

Library of Congress Archivist Cheryl Fox and Paper Conservation Section Head Holly Krueger contributed to this article. 

One Comment

  1. Lorri Peltz-Lewis
    January 29, 2015 at 8:45 am

    were the burnt papers preserved? Could the new X-Ray techniques used on the Vesuvius scrolls be used? The Army lost all my Uncles WW II records in a fire, NRCS lost map data, so may lost unique works might be recovered.

    Great story! Thanks!

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