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At Peabody Library, a damaging tale

A clogged pipe at the Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Library sent water seeping through five floors of historic books, damaging as many as 8,000 volumes from the 17th to 19th centuries, officials said yesterday.

Workers from a New York restoration company rushed to the renowned library on Mount Vernon Place yesterday to move the books into two 53-foot freezer trucks to be transported to the company's facility near Rochester. There, they will be subjected to high-technology freezing processes intended to dry them and undo as much of the water damage as possible.

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Company and library officials said that some books, including those with elaborate illustrated bindings or with hand-written text, could be difficult to restore. But the general manager of the company, Document Reprocessors, predicted that most of the books would be returned in a month in good condition.

"They're wet, and they need to be fixed, but it's not like a flood," said General Manager Quintin Schwartz. "These books can be brought back."

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The damage occurred along the eastern wall of the elegant library, famous for its five levels of stacks and cast-iron balconies, which ascend to a skylight 61 feet above the floor. Built in the 1870s to house the collection bequeathed by philanthropist George Peabody, the library often is used for weddings and other events and has appeared in several films.

Hopkins officials, who discovered the damage Monday, said they believe the leakage occurred during the weekend because a library employee who was in the affected area Friday detected no problems. University spokesman Glenn Small said officials suspect the leaking air-conditioning drainage pipe may have become clogged with calcium buildup, a risk in older pipes.

The air-conditioning system was replaced this year, but the pipe that leaked was not replaced, Small said. Vertical drainage pipes such as this one tend to last longer, he said.

The university has hired an independent mechanical engineer to determine what caused the blockage and to study whether other pipes in the library are at risk of leaking. "The leadership is going to get on this to make sure it does not happen again," Small said.

He said Document Reprocessors won't be able to give an estimate for the restoration until it assesses the books' damage more closely. Insurance will cover the cost, he said.

Moving from floor to floor through electrical conduits in the ceilings, the water ran all the way down the five levels of books, harming the top floors the most.

A cross section

The damaged books are a cross section of the library's 318,000-volume holdings, said Hopkins library curator Cynthia H. Requardt: history, literature, art and architecture studies, periodicals and more. The library was intended, she said, to hold the best books in every subject that an educated Baltimorean might seek to study, except for law and medicine, which were housed separately.

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"It's a fabulous collection," she said. "It's a real study of what a scholar would need in the late 19th century."

The library's most valuable volumes, including atlases and travel literature from the earliest days of the printing press, are kept in a separate rare book room and were not damaged, she said.

Among the volumes Requardt is most worried about are those with decorated bindings.

The library's damage was clearly visible yesterday on the stacks' top level, where pails with a few inches of water stood between shelves filled with soggy, stained volumes. In one aisle, the water had seeped into row upon row of bound periodicals, including copies of the British Quarterly Review and Dublin Review dating to the 1840s.

In another aisle, water had soaked into a large, vellum-covered 1712 collection of classical writings, the Acta Eruditorium, and a set of 1752 ecclesiastical histories. Green mold sprouted on a soggy 1878 volume of the Fortnightly Review.

Optimistic

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Most of this damage could be repaired, said Schwartz. Getting the books into the freezer trucks as fast as possible, he said, would keep the water's effects - such as running ink, expanding bindings and the "cockling," or buckling and wrinkling, of pages - from worsening.

Once at the company's headquarters, the books will be divided among those with bindings of vellum (typically calfskin or lambskin) or other leather and those with paper-based bindings. The leather and vellum books will undergo cryogenic freezing at temperatures as low as 65 degrees below zero.

The rest will undergo a vacuum freeze-drying process that is patented by the company. Founded in California in 1979, the company has restored burned and water-damaged rare books, medical and legal records, and, most notably, dozens of books and postcards retrieved from the Titanic.

The key to successful restorations (the Titanic aside) is getting documents or books frozen as soon as possible after the damage occurs, Schwartz said. He and 12 employees drove through the night from New York after being called by Hopkins, he said.

'Critical time'

Meanwhile, Hopkins officials turned up the library's air conditioning to chill the books as much as possible before they went into the freezer trucks, which are kept at zero degrees.

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"Time is absolutely critical," Schwartz said. "As the books get wet, they start to expand. The longer they sit, they start to look like wedges."

Yesterday morning, Schwartz's employees scoured the stacks to determine the extent of the damage with the help of a sensor that could be stuck into books to assess moisture levels. At the same time, the workers were careful to organize the books they were carrying off to make it easier to replace them in order when they return.

By late afternoon, about 3,000 books had been stacked into 300 boxes, with as any as 5,000 more volumes awaiting rescue. The trucks probably wouldn't be fully loaded until today, Schwartz said.

After being part of the independent Peabody Institute for decades, the library was transferred to the city in 1967 to be administered by the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Hopkins acquired it in 1982, but it remains open to the public.


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