A salvaging feat

Published : Aug 17, 2002 00:00 IST

At the Sundarayya Vignana Kendram in Hyderabad, a priceless collection of Telugu and Urdu books which was submerged following flash floods two years ago has been restored in a scientific operation that is perhaps a model in global cooperation.

TWO years after being devastated by flash floods, a unique conservation project at the Sundarayya Vignana Kendram (SVK) in Hyderabad has entered the final phase of recovering two priceless collections of more than 1.25 lakh books, periodicals, manuscripts and other material - the Telugu collection at the SVK's Research Library and the Urdu collection at its Urdu Research Centre (URC) - which were submerged in the flash floods that hit the city in August 2000. They have been kept in cold storage at -20oC and are being restored by employing the thermal vacuum freeze drying technique.

The results of the work, which began in June, are striking. Sodden books and other slush-covered valuable material have come out clean from the eight-tonne vacuum-drying equipment brought from Vancouver. More than 15,000 volumes have been recovered so far in several drying cycles, each about eight days long. In all, about 60,000 volumes of material are to go through this cleaning cycle. Sambi Reddy, secretary of the SVK Trust, expects to complete the project by November.

The SVK was established in 1988 in memory of P. Sundarayya, freedom-fighter, Communist stalwart and popular hero of the Telengana peasant uprising of the 1940s. A registered non-profit Trust, it has more than 300 scholars and teachers as members and is a public research facility that promotes studies on the socio-economic and cultural aspects of Indian society, and scientific theories of socialism, democracy and other schools of thought.

The effort to restore the damaged books has been a model in international cooperation in crisis management. It has brought together from across the world government agencies, public and private institutions, researchers, academics, librarians, social activists and technologists to save the valuable historic legacy (Frontline, October 13, 2000). When catastrophe struck at the SVK, expert advice on how to handle the crisis poured in from libraries and research institutions from the U.S. The Internet and e-mail provided the lifeline to the SVK, enabling it to gather expert advice quickly and start salvaging operations at once.

James Nye, bibliographer for Southern Asia and Director of the South Asia Language and Area Centre at the University of Chicago, has been in constant touch with the SVK over the last two years, coordinating efforts aimed at mobilising resources for the restoration project, apart from collating and sending the technical expertise to Hyderabad. David Magier, Director of Area Studies and South/Southeast Asian Studies Librarian at Columbia University Libraries, has also been actively involved with the project. The two universities' interest in salvaging the collection reflects their long tradition of academic research on South Asia. Soon after the flooding, American academics with a keen interest in South Asia assembled the technical inputs that were to go into the project. The Centre for South Asian Libraries (CSAL) has funded the $303,000 freeze-drying operation and marshalled the technical expertise as well. The CSAL was founded in 2001 by Columbia University, the University of Chicago and the Centre for Research Libraries - a consortium of universities and research organisations in North America. Cromwell Restoration Technologies, a Canadian company which was identified to undertake the project, suggested the use of the thermal vacuum freeze drying method.

In early 2001, a team from Cromwell conducted a training programme for volunteers in Hyderabad, enabling them to begin the restoration using the rudimentary air-drying method. Of the 1.25 lakh damaged articles, about 25,000 were discarded either because they could be easily replaced or because they were beyond recovery.

In the first phase, which began within a week of the flooding, about one lakh articles were moved into cold storages in Hyderabad. Although expert advice favoured placing the sodden material in conditions of -20oC, only about 70 per cent of the one lakh volumes could be placed in such freezers. This was dictated as much by cost compulsions as by the limited availability of storage space. Besides, the rent for the freezers is the equivalent of about Rs.1 lakh a month. In the second phase, the remaining material, which was in cold storage at 2oC, was air dried.

THE restoration of wet paper material relies on a process known as sublimation. Books and other material in frozen state are placed in a vacuum chamber about ten feet long and six feet wide. Coils on the sides of the chamber ensure that the temperature on the sides is maintained at -50oC. Glycol, which has a very low freezing point, is run at 22 to 25oC in tubes beneath the chamber and along the trays which are placed on trolleys inside it in order to ensure that the material is heated slowly. The heat causes moisture to be released from the material. The vacuum ensures that the moisture does not adhere to the surface of the material. Instead, moisture condenses as ice along the coils on the two sidewalls of the chamber. At the end of a cycle of about eight days, the books are dry and clean but a reminder of their days in the slush is the green-coloured ice.

As the dryer chamber opens after processing, volunteers are ready with the next batch of books from the freezer. Time is of the essence because the machine has to be returned in six months. About 85 per cent of the material is completely dry; the remaining will have to go through another cycle in the chamber. The restoration process begins with the removal of the hard cover on the frozen books. The title page is retained as is the back cover because it contains essential bibliographical details about the title and the author. Care is taken to ensure that no book is dismembered and that as far as possible all the pages are intact. Meanwhile, the books that are taken out of the dryer are sorted. Each page is chemically treated and ironed carefully before it is prepared for binding. The more valuable material is set aside to be microfilmed before binding.

The process was not without its technical glitches, particularly with the electrical circuits. Blown fuses and frequent tripping posed problems to the volunteers at the SVK when the Canadian technicians had to leave the country because of the threat of a war in June. The problems were resolved by SVK's well-wishers, who arranged for technical help. Among those who helped was S.V. Narsiah, who had been a close associate of Sundarayya. Narsiah is the chairman of Hind High Vacuum, a Bangalore-based company that specialises in fabricating vacuum equipment for applications in space and atomic energy.

Marshall Oliver, Director of Technical Services at Cromwell, told Frontline that the experience in Hyderabad was unique in that "it was unusual for an entire library to have suffered saturation". However, he maintained that since all the material had a uniform moisture content, "the job was easier". The most difficult part for Cromwell was getting the large equipment to Hyderabad. It was first airlifted to Luxembourg from Vancouver and then to Chennai, from where it was moved by road to Hyderabad.

Marshall was all praise for the volunteers at the SVK. He said they monitored the vacuum chamber and regularly e-mailed the data to Vancouver, Cromwell's home base. Cromwell's project at the SVK represents the first time the company has ventured outside Canada. Among the challenges that it faced in Hyderabad were: the differences in power frequencies - 60 hertz in Canada, compared with 50 hz in India; the difficulty in reacting to emergency requests because of the time difference of more than 12 hours between Canada and India; the high temperatures and humidity levels that made the task of providing a clean room environment more difficult; and the lack of technical resources compared with Canada.

Asked how he rated the SVK project in terms of Cromwell's own experience with restoration techniques, Marshall said: "The project was truly unique in that our original interest in accepting a challenge overseas developed into a desire to help the people in Hyderabad in any way we could." He added that although Cromwell was a "for profit" company, "we began to look for ways (in which) we could assist without charge to the project". Cromwell has not only committed the vacuum drying equipment for the project without making any profits but it has also not charged for expenses on personnel and ancillary equipment.

The SVK, undeterred by the setback, is looking ahead. While the Andhra Pradesh government contributed Rs.10 lakh for civil works at the SVK after the flooding, Lavu Balagangadhara Rao, managing trustee of the SVK, among others, has played a crucial role in mobilising funds for the SVK's recovery. Designated by the CSAL as the nodal library for Urdu and Telugu works in South Asia, the SVK is ready to develop a comprehensive database of these works after the recovery project ends in November. Atlury Murali, Reader in History at the University of Hyderabad and a member of the SVK Trust, told Frontline that the SVK was pursuing a two-track policy in order to fulfil its role as an international public research facility. First, it is building a database of its Telugu collection so that it can be part of the Online Computer Library Centre Inc. (OCLC) in the U.S. The SVK was also undertaking a project to microfilm rare books and other material in its custody and make them available to universities across the world, he said. The cataloguing process would allow researchers access to detailed bibliographical material. This, while fulfilling the needs of researchers globally, would also enable the SVK to acquire independent financial strength. James Nye told Frontline that although the devastation caused by the flooding has delayed the collaborative efforts in the U.S. and India to share library resources, "we are also better coordinated because of the recovery efforts and even more fully committed to improving the material conditions for Urdu and Deccan studies".

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