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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"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.
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."