Putting book damage on ice at the Peabody


In the stillness of the cast-iron galleries at the Johns Hopkins University's elegant Peabody Library, speed seems an alien concept.

But when a drain clogged and water from a rooftop air conditioner began trickling down through six floors of books, speed was suddenly the key to survival for thousands of irreplaceable volumes.

From the moment the water reached them over the weekend of Aug. 3, the books in the library's east galleries began soaking it up. Humidity climbed and overwhelmed the capacity of the air conditioning to remove it.

Thousands of books began to swell, wrinkle and warp. In days, mold and mildew spores - dormant for years or carried in with the water - would begin to stain, stink up, digest and destroy the paper and the old animal glues in their bindings.

It had to be stopped, and quickly. The solution - freeze-drying.

"The Library of Congress says you should freeze them within 48 hours of the mishap," said Eric Lundquist, owner of Document Reprocessors, the Rochester, N.Y., company that the Peabody hired to rescue the collection.

Freezing books quickly arrests the migration of water through the pages and halts the growth of such damaging molds as asperguillus and stachybotrys. That gives restorers time to move the volumes to vacuum chambers for thorough drying.

Lundquist's outfit, which hauled 1,500 boxes laden with about 8,300 wet volumes from the Peabody, is one of fewer than a half-dozen in the United States and Canada that can respond to such disasters.

The company grosses from $5 million to $6 million a year, rescuing 50,000 books and 20,000 boxes of other documents, including film, tapes and computer media, Lundquist said. He has tackled floods in libraries, courthouses and hospitals. He has even restored papers and cigars brought up from the Titanic.

Repair costs

The cost to the Peabody's insurance company is estimated at from $200,000 to $300,000, library officials said - between $24 and $36 per book.

Restorers encourage disaster planning and seek out contingency agreements with potential customers. But they're also fiercely competitive. Some keep equipment positioned around the country and monitor the news closely. Within hours of the Peabody's call, Document Reprocessors and BMS Catastrophe of Fort Worth, Texas, had people in Baltimore. But Document Reprocessors arrived with freezer trucks, a mobile office and a crew ready to work; the New York firm got the job.

"This is not brain surgery," said a disappointed Don Haggard, emergency response coordinator for BMS Catastrophe. "But if you don't do it correctly, you stand to lose your documents."

That's another thing about the business. Restoration companies guard trade secrets and may scoff at their competitors' techniques. But vacuum freeze-drying is at the core of everyone's restoration science.

This week, Document Reprocessors will roll the Peabody's books into a cylindrical chamber 45 feet long and 8 1/2 feet in diameter at its Rochester plant. It can hold up to 10,000 volumes. Technicians will then lower the pressure inside to one-200th of sea level - equivalent to an altitude of 92,000 feet.

Under those conditions, ice turns directly to water vapor at 32 degrees - without going through the liquid stage, a process known as sublimation that allows it to escape the frozen books with no further damage. After seven to 10 days in the chamber, Lundquist said, the books are usually dry. If they need no further cleaning or restoration, they're ready to go back in the stacks.

Quintin Schwartz, who is managing the Peabody rescue, said that 20 years ago, before freeze-drying, if a library were flooded, cleanup crews would "walk in, throw everything in a Dumpster and walk out."

Fast action

When Sonja Jordan, head of the Peabody Library's preservation department, saw water trickling through her books Aug. 4, she knew they could be saved if she worked fast.

Following her disaster plan, Jordan alerted maintenance crews to clear the clogged drain and stop the leak. The air conditioning was cranked up, and within hours temperatures in the galleries hovered in the low 60s. The chill slowed mold growth - a critical decision. "The only reason these books are being saved is because of her," Schwartz said. "She just jumped on this."

Jordan had standing agreements with commercial freezers in Baltimore. But it was quickly apparent that too many books had been soaked.

Once Document Reprocessors had the contract, Schwartz's priority was getting the wettest books into the freezer trucks fast. Using his crew and dozens of temporary workers hired locally, he organized a human chain to find wet books, then box, label and pass them down six flights of stairs to the trucks.

Books from the fifth and sixth floors were the wettest, and it showed. Most book paper is made from wood pulp - a slurry of water and cellulose fiber that has been pressed flat and dried. "If the paper gets too wet, the paper will try to regain its original size, and it will be wrinkled," Lundquist said. Book covers, too, will swell and warp.

If less than 40 percent of a book is wet, he has discovered, freeze-drying will return it to normal. Any wetter, and books will stay wrinkled and warped. As many as 15 percent will need costly rebinding.

Restoration processes

To address that problem, Document Reprocessors patented a process that puts sheets of aircraft aluminum between books and binds batches of them together with rubber cords as they dry. "It squeezed the book back to its natural shape, or as good as we could do, and reduced rebinding to 2 percent," Lundquist said.

On the downside, freeze-drying removes virtually all moisture from a soaked book, so it will dry out old leather bindings, causing them to shrink and crack. Several hundred of the wet Peabody books are bound in leather, so for those Lundquist will use a secret cryogenic drying technique that preserves some moisture in the leather. "We haven't patented that because we don't want to tell anybody how we do it," he said.

On Aug. 7, Schwartz worked his way through the library stacks, methodically searching by touch and with electronic sensor for the last of the wet books. The Peabody was lucky, he said. The final tally came to 2.5 percent of the library's 320,000 volumes.

And the leak was clean.

In the wake of a fire, wet, sooty books have to be dried, laboriously cleaned and often rebound, Lundquist said. Those caught in river floods or sewage spills must also be tested for toxins and bacteria. Fumigation with ethylene oxide or a zap of gamma radiation can kill mold and bacteria. But frequently such books are better photocopied and thrown away.

As Jordan watched the last of the soggy books being rolled out of her chilled library, she had the air of someone who had dodged a bullet. "It's all water damage we're seeing," she said. "I'm prepared for mold damage, but I think we have arrested that. ... The recovery I expect to be 100 percent."

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