Saving history from a hurricane

Teams of archivists are rushing to the Gulf Coast on an urgent mission to recover priceless records damaged by Katrina.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When two feet of water flooded the basement of the New Orleans courthouse a month ago, archivist Stephen Bruno faced a huge problem. All the books on the bottom shelves were wet. He knew the soggy volumes, containing important public records, must be put in freezers to halt the growth of mold until they could be dried out.

"I made a public plea for help," says Mr. Bruno, custodian of notarial records for Orleans Parish. "Once they finished saving people, I became deeply concerned that we had to save records."

Books, documents, and photographs in public and private collections remain an invisible part of rescue operations in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. From courthouses, libraries, and businesses to lawyers' offices and homes, the need is the same: to dry out papers and save as many documents as possible.

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Salvage efforts have been hurt by poor access to storm-ravaged areas and by a lack of electricity.

"Without power, there's no way to control relative humidity," says Sharon Bennett, a conservator from Charleston, S.C., who spent last week in New Orleans assessing the damage to cultural collections. "There's a very short amount of time before the damage becomes irreversible. You can't get the stains out."

At the New Orleans courthouse, crews spent a day and a half pumping out thousands of gallons of water. Snakes slithered across the muddy floor. After removing 60,000 books, they stored dry volumes in trucks in the parking lot. They loaded wet books into two freezer trucks, to be transported to a restoration firm near Chicago.

"Most documents were land deed records, very old," says Lauren Reid, an executive vice president at Munters Moisture Control Service, a restoration firm in Glendale Heights, Ill. "Louisiana is a Napoleonic state. There's a lot of historic records in that state."

Truckloads of papers from other damaged collections are on the way, Mr. Reid says. Twenty more trucks of wet documents are still being stabilized in New Orleans before being shipped.

Reid describes the restoration process. "When paper gets wet, paper fibers start to swell, and they twist," he says. "That's called cockling." Inks may run, and mold may grow. Freezing prevents further degradation of the paper.

Large loads of documents, 500 to 600 cubic feet at a time, are placed in a vacuum chamber. The chamber is sealed, the air is pumped out, and a small heat source is turned on. The chamber never gets warmer than 32 degrees F., but the vacuum causes the ice to sublimate - to turn directly from a solid to a gas, without going through a liquid phase. In the process, dirt is lifted to the paper surface, where it can be carefully brushed or vacuumed away. As a final step, the pages are sanitized using gamma radiation.

Drying and cleaning takes between 10 days and two weeks, Reid says. Costs vary so widely he declined to give a figure.

Even after all this treatment, Reid says, it is difficult to get documents back to their previous condition.

Wet photos present other challenges. "With photographs, you can get all kinds of distortion," says Paul Messier, a conservator of photographs and works on paper in Boston. "Things get buckled. You end up with an unruly group of objects, no longer two-dimensional. Any sort of fungal growth can cause very dramatic staining to occur on books, photographs, works on paper. The fungus itself can completely undermine large sections of a photographic image."

In New Orleans, the main public library stayed dry. But six of the 12 branch libraries were "pretty much devastated by flooding or rain damage," says Wayne Everard, archivist for the library. Although water flooded the basements of two libraries at Tulane University, he says, "They think they'll get a lot of important stuff recovered."

Already the American Association for State and Local History has raised funds to send RVs to affected areas. On those RVs are conservators from the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works in Washington, D.C.

Last week the first team of these volunteers arrived in New Orleans. Dressed in hard hats, hip boots, masks, and Tyvek suits, they visited libraries, historical societies, and other cultural agencies.

"We're doing assessments," says Conover Hunt, a collection specialist in Hampton, Va. "That's the first thing to do in deciding how to fix what got hurt."

In another volunteer effort last week, Richard Pearce-Moses, president of the Society of American Archivists, was part of a team of archivists visiting three sites in Mississippi - Gulfport, Biloxi, and Waveland. They surveyed damage in city halls, a public library, a historical society, and other archival collections.

"Records collections were either completely destroyed by the storm surge or were in poor condition because of high humidity that causes mold growth," Mr. Pearce-Moses says. The challenge now is finding space to move records from damp buildings to dry locations.

At the Biloxi Public Library, the building is structurally sound, but the interior is filled with mud and mold. Locked inside is a collection of valuable historical photographs. "If we don't get in there and have them frozen and then restored, we may lose the most significant collection of Biloxi history," says Pearce-Moses.

The Society of American Archivists has a list of 200 archivists willing to donate time to help. But a lack of lodging, water, and food in affected areas prevents large numbers of volunteers from traveling to the area. Staff members from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History are commuting three hours a day each way to try to salvage collections.

Public records are not the only documents needing help. "As people begin to get back into their homes, they'll be looking at their family Bible, family photographs, and wondering how they can salvage them," Pearce-Moses says. "We need some sort of hotline for the public."

In another sign of the collective effort involved, the National Archives is working to find freezer space to store books and documents until they can be treated, Ms. Bennett says.

They are racing the clock. "The huge fear is that it may be too late," says Mr. Messier. "We almost couldn't have a worse combination of elements - the initial wetting of the material, then prolonged exposure to high-level humidity. We're looking to do our absolute best with what we are presented with."

At the New Orleans courthouse, Bruno still does not know where the displaced records will go permanently. But of one thing he is certain: "They'll never be stored below ground again."

As archivists scramble to save important collections, they hope for greater public recognition and support.

"People have simply forgotten about the archival collections, where most of their history resides," says Faye Phillips, associate dean of libraries for special collections at Louisiana State University. "We really need to get that on the radar for future disaster plans. You can buy new library books if you can come up with the money, but you can't buy new archives."

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