all libraries, with the field of book conservation tracing its own origins directly back to the
Florence flood. Yet, despite dozens of large-scale disasters and literally thousands of smaller
events that have occurred in libraries worldwide since 1966, “best practices” remain unclear,
especially for large-scale recovery efforts, because of the limited amount of research conducted
on the long-term consequences of various drying and sterilization methods.1
Recovery specialists need to have a clear sense of the pros and cons of existing treatment options
before they can respond effectively. This information is critical to making event-specific
decisions so that collection permanence is optimized and distortion minimized within fiscal and
operational constraints. Questions to be addressed in reaching those event-specific decisions
include: What is the optimal approach to drying water-damaged books given the amount of
material affected? What constraints are imposed by the availability and capacity of freezers,
electricity, heating, ventilating and cooling (HVAC) systems, labor (trained and untrained),
equipment (e.g., book presses, sorbants, fans) and vendors? What regional industrial resources
can be called into service (e.g., freeze driers, flash freezers, sub-zero warehouses)? What
percentage of the damaged material is rare and which technical options are preferable for material with significant cultural or monetary value? How will a chosen treatment affect paper permanence or the physical cockling of damaged books? When is sterilization justified and what
is a responsible treatment option? And if the collection is insured, what constitutes “restoration to usability”?
These judgments must be predicated upon an understanding of the comparative benefits, contraindications, and expenses of the proposed alternatives. The grim reality of flood situations where entire collections are submerged is that all choices are less than optimal, and a recovery can potentially be complicated by sewage-borne contaminants, pathogens, pollutants, and exponentially accelerated microbial growth.
Working with a sense of urgency to address these questions for the population of books most frequently affected by floods, a research project was forged in 2004 that included stakeholders (British Library, National Library of the Czech Republic, and University of Utah Marriott Library), research scientists (British Library, National Library of the Czech Republic, Huntsman Cancer Institute, and Applied Paper Technology, Inc.), and vendors of emergency drying services (Belfor USA, and Artifex Equipment, Inc.). Support for the research was generously provided by the National Center for Preservation Technology & Training.2
The goal of this research project was to define which of five drying and two sterilization techniques caused the least mechanical damage to eighteenth-twentieth century handmade and machine-made book papers. The enquiry hoped to determine reasons recovery specialists should
choose one drying or sterilization technique over another given
- the age and historical value of the collection;
- predominant paper types comprising the damaged material; and,
- institutional or insurer-imposed fiscal constraints.
Importantly, the performance of bindings and binding materials was not addressed in this study because books exposed to major flooding typically require rebinding.