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Bright daylight photo of a woman holding a child, standing in front of a display booth, watching a female Library technician point out something on a display board
Conservator Katherine Kelly explains how to wash and dry flood-damaged family treasures at a Vermont state fair. Photo: Jon Sweiter-Lamme.

Library Conservation Specialists Help Save Books, Artifacts After Disasters Around the World

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It was late November last year, and journalist Peter Hirschfeld waded through a dark basement on the outskirts of downtown Montpelier. More than four months earlier, a massive flood had inundated the Vermont state capital and cleanup continued.

“There’s ankle-high water, and it smells like raw sewage,” Hirschfeld said on the Brave Little State podcast. The July 10 and 11 flood, he told listeners, was the worst “anyone who lives here can remember.”

In the weeks after the flood, federal agencies, including a team from the Library’s Conservation Division, traveled to Vermont to offer services and expertise. The Library’s involvement reflects a decades-long history of advising on ways to salvage cultural artifacts after disasters.

“We’re a library, and we provide information to people and answer their questions. So, if you have questions about damaged items, we will help you,” said Andrew Robb, head of the Photo Conservation Section. “It also informs us of what we can do better internally.”

Robb coordinates the Library’s Preservation Emergency Response Team. Working with the U.S. Capitol Police, the Architect of the Capitol and the Library’s Security and Emergency Preparedness Directorate and Facility Services Division, its members respond around the clock to incidents in Library buildings that might harm collections.

By deploying off-site, Conservation Division staff members add to the division’s first-hand knowledge about how disasters, most of which involve water, can affect cultural artifacts.

After Vermont’s floods, four division staffers — book conservator Katherine Kelly, objects conservator Liz Peirce, preservation education librarian Jon Sweitzer-Lamme and Lily Tyndall, a general collections conservation technician —  traveled to locations around Vermont for 16 days as part of an effort organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

They supported a program called Save Your Family Treasures, which provides demonstrations on how to salvage wet artifacts. The program is a joint effort of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, a FEMA subdivision, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Cultural Rescue Initiative.

Upon arriving in Vermont, the Library team trained fellow responders in techniques such as mold mitigation. In turn, the staffers familiarized themselves with how Save Your Family Treasures operates and learned how to interact with people after traumas. Then they hit the road.

At stations in FEMA disaster recovery centers and at state fairs, they educated people about low-cost methods to rescue soaked and dirty possessions.

“If you’re talking with someone whose basement flooded, you need to give them information about things they can buy at the dollar store or in the hardware isle of their local store,” Kelly said.

Team members demonstrated how to immerse photographs in make-shift baths made from aluminum roasting trays, gently brush away grime, then hang them to dry.

“It wouldn’t look exactly as pristine as when you had those photos before, but at least you wouldn’t have lost your family history,” Kelly said.

Objects conservator Peirce spoke with people about resuscitating a “surprising range of things” —  wedding sets, a cookie jar someone’s mother made, a baby book that included scraps of textiles.

The Conservation Division’s external outreach began in 1966 in Italy. A flood in Florence killed dozens of people, destroyed or badly damaged many masterpieces and submerged tens of thousands of books in the city’s Biblioteca Nazionale, Italy’s national library, in water.

English conservator and bookbinder Peter Waters, known for his work on such world historical tomes as the “Book of Kells,” traveled to Florence with a group of others to help. They came to be known as “mud angels” for their rescue of artifacts and books — not just fine art volumes but also general collections.

At the time, the Library had a preservation officer, but its conservation program was in its infancy. The flood raised a bright red flag about the need for more.

“It’s a real pivot point in the history of conservation in this country,” Robb said.

Following his work in Florence, Waters came to the Library with members of his team. As the Library’s first conservation chief, he applied lessons from Florence to care of the Library’s collections. He also established a policy of providing technical assistance beyond the Library’s walls.

“We are structured and founded in a way that’s directly related to how he responds to all of these things in Florence,” Robb said of the Conservation Division.

In the decades since Florence, Library specialists have advised disaster victims around the world.

Specialists traveled to Saint Petersburg, Russia, after water damaged millions of volumes in a 1988 fire at the Academy of Sciences Library; to the University of Hawaii, Manoa, after a 2004 flood drenched some 90,000 maps; to Japan’s National Diet Library in the wake of the country’s devastating 2011 tsunami; and to New York City after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Most often, though, Conservation Division experts offer guidance by phone or email. Before Robb went to New York after Sandy to help set up a recovery center recommending ways to treat water-damaged items, he answered questions from his office in the Madison Building.

“Frankly,” he said, “the most impact I had was on the phone.”

Timing was a definite impediment for conservators in Vermont — the Library team arrived weeks after the flood when mold had set in, causing permanent damage to many belongings. Even earlier, some people had thrown out valued possessions, thinking they were beyond salvage.

“The more effective teaching we were doing was how to prepare for next time,” Kelly said. “We delivered the message that with fairly swift, easy action, you can save the things that are truly treasures.”

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Comments

  1. THE MUD ANGELS: HOW STUDENTS SAVED THE CITY OF FLORENCE (Albert Whitman)—the first English language picture book about the 1966 Arno flood—launches in April. A large amount of research for this book includes primary sources–interviews with 16 Mud Angels first on the scene.

    BRIEFLY: THE MUD ANGELS: HOW STUDENTS SAVED THE CITY OF FLORENCE tells the story of the Arno River’s 1966 dramatic, turbulent, and surprise flood in Florence, Italy. After enormous waves crash into buildings, museums, and other structures, they leave behind thousands of tons of smelly, viscous, oil-filled mud. Everywhere. Covering everything. A young narrator watches students from the US, Italy, and other countries courageously trek through dangerous filth to save Florence’s rarest antiquities. Their destination is the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (BNCF), which houses a copy of every piece of Italian literature (including 16th and 17th century originals). The students are in a race against time (and mud) and the harsh journey is nowhere near as challenging as what awaits them.

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