Saving a valuable collection

Published : Sep 30, 2000 00:00 IST

In a unique conservation effort, the Sundarayya Vignana Kendram in Hyderabad salvages thousands of historical writings that were damaged in the August floods.

A MAJOR conservation effort, perhaps the first of its kind in India, is on to salvage more than 1,25,000 historical writings, mostly of the 19th and the 20th centuries, that were damaged in the flash floods that hit Hyderabad on August 24. The collection s are housed in two unique libraries - the Research Library and the Urdu Research Centre (URC) - at the Sundarayya Vignana Kendram (SVK). The effort, hailed by international library conservation experts as a model in crisis management, has also served as an example of international cooperation to save historical heritage. Working in close coordination with the organisers of the SVK, conservation experts from the United States provided timely technical expertise, responding quickly to pleas for help from Hyderabad via e-mail.

The Research Library has a valuable collection of Telugu literature and other material belonging to the 19th and 20th centuries. The URC has what may be the world's finest collection of early Urdu periodicals and printed books. The URC was initiated by t he Urdu Research Library Consortium (URLC) in which several major U.S. universities are participants.

The opening of the floodgates on August 24 in order to release surplus waters from the various tanks in Hyderabad resulted in the flash floods. Several areas in the city were covered in sheets of water. The SVK was submerged in three metres (10 feet) of water in a span of less than 30 minutes.

Dr. Atlury Murali, Reader in History at the University of Hyderabad, and a member of the trust that governs the SVK, sent an SOS to library conservation experts in the U.S. "I am reporting a tragedy with tears in my eyes," Murali wrote to James Nye, Bibl iographer for South Asia at the University of Chicago, on the evening of August 24. Murali informed him that while hundreds of books and other printed material were floating in the library premises, other sodden material remained on the shelves.

The first response to the desperate e-mail came from David Magier of Columbia University. Magier's posting advised the SVK organisers to refer the technical leaflets on emergency management in libraries at the website of the Northeast Document Conservati on Centre (NDCC), Maryland, U.S.

Over the next few days, the Preservation Office at the Library of Congress, the NDCC, the Weissman Preservation Centre at Harvard University, the Preservation Department at the University of Columbia Libraries and the Preservation Department at the Unive rsity of Chicago Libraries assisted in the salvage operations. In addition, the Association of Research Libraries, the Centre for Research Libraries, the Council of American Overseas Research Centres and the Library of Congress' New Delhi Field Office of fered assistance in various ways.

The experts' advice was that although the immediate task was to get the material out of the water, it was equally important to prevent the formation of mould on the books and other material. As the humid conditions in the aftermath of the floods threaten ed to provide an environment conducive to the growth of mould, one expert even suggested that the books rather remain under water until arrangements to move them into freezers were fully in place. It was recommended that the books and records be placed i n wooden or plastic crates, their spines facing downwards and one layer deep in order to prevent further damage.

According to an online leaflet of the NDCC, titled "Emergency Salvage of Wet Books and Records", paper-based collections distort immediately upon becoming wet. Books distort, paper cockles, inks and pigments tend to run and coated paper begin to adhere. Mould blooms rapidly in wet collections, first attacking the spines of bound material. "Once established," the leaflet points out, "mould is extremely difficult to control and eradicate..." Time is of the essence in any recovery operation. The process o f stabilisation of the collections and the facilities in which they are housed are the key to a successful salvage operation. Stabilisation means that water is removed, temperature and humidity are brought under control and the dry collections are protec ted. In most instances, wet books and records must be stabilised by freezing. The NDCC observes, from experience in the last decade in the U.S., that "if sound recovery methods are followed, it is less expensive to dry original collections than to replac e them".

The NDCC provides information on the various drying techniques available to library conservators. Air drying, the oldest and most common method, is more suitable when small volumes of material are involved. However, it is inexpensive because it does not require sophisticated equipment. Dehumidification is suitable for drying library or archive buildings that have suffered extensive damage by water. However, this method is more effective when used in conjunction with other techniques.

Freezer drying, the method now employed by the SVK, involves the placing of the material in freezers for several weeks, or even months to enable drying. Cryogenic drying, a variation of the freezer drying method, is a patented process. It is primarily me ant for the recovery of rare books and manuscripts, particularly those bound in leather or vellum. Vacuum freeze drying is a more expensive option, requiring sophisticated equipment.

The technical literature on salvaging printed material from water advocates an ideal temperature of 0 degrees Celsius. According to experts, at 99 per cent humidity and with the temperature at 35 degrees Celsius, mould will form within two days. At 90 pe r cent humidity and at the same temperature, mould formation will occur in about four days. And, at about 80 per cent humidity, mould growth will take place in about 13 days. This meant that unless the SVK organisers were sure about the logistics of the freezing operations, the books had a better chance of survival in water rather than out of it.

The experts suggested that manuscripts, miniature paintings and other material in water-soluble media be retrieved on a priority basis. "Prolonged immersion," an expert informed Murali, "will not dissolve the paper in most situations." However, exposure to water could make the ink "bleed" or dissolve. The image layer of coated glossy paper also ran the risk of being softened.

Wet books and records require different methods of treatment. Paper records need to be separated quickly to avoid the risk of damage owing to adhesion. Individual sheets of records must be laid on floors or such other flat surfaces and if possible be pro tected by paper towels to ensure quicker absorption of water.

Wet books are a more difficult proposition. Every few pages have to be interleaved using paper towels or clean unprinted newsprint. The interleaving has to be replaced regularly to remove the moisture. However, excessive interleaving would cause damage, making the spine concave, distorting the shape of the book. Care has to taken to prevent stacking of books as this would damage the volumes.

The consensus of the experts in the U.S., who had started hectic consultations among themselves, was that the books should be freeze-dried at the earliest. Murali and his associates were urged to move the books quickly into freezers. Over the next few da ys, Sambi Reddy, the secretary of the SVK, and Murali consulted the experts on all aspects of the conservation effort. A conservation expert at Columbia University advised Murali to "bring out of the water only as much as you think you can spread out and dry right away". The books had to be washed gently to remove mud. The delicate nature of the cargo meant that only 25 books could be carried in a crate. Soon enough, the SVK organisers ran short of plastic crates. They procured 2,000 wooden crates but only a limited number of books could be accommodated in each of them. The books were kept in a single row, their spines facing down.

With the help of some friendly bureaucrats, the organisers located some cold storage space for free for the rather unusual consignment. By the morning of August 26, the first truckloads of material in 300 plastic crates were ready to be moved to the deep freezers. Volunteers from the Students' Federation of India (SFI) were engaged in this operation because Murali believed that they would "handle the books with sympathy".

By the night of August 30, the first leg of the recovery operation was over. More than one lakh books and about 1,250 Urdu manuscripts, in 2,200 plastic crates, were placed in cold storage. About 1,700 crates are being kept in -2 degrees Celsius and the rest at 2 degrees Celsius, as advised by the experts. The SVK has hired about 7,500 cubic feet of cold storage space, at a cost of about Rs.1 lakh a month. Sambi Reddy estimates that about 60 per cent of the Telugu collection and more than 90 per cent of the Urdu collection are now in the deep freezer.

Murali told Frontline that the collection would remain in the freezer until December. He is confident of a 100 per cent recovery. Since most of the books are of 19th and early 20th century vintage, the problem is more with the paper, which is brit tle, rather than the ink. The Urdu manuscripts, he said, were in good condition as they were kept in plastic covers and also because "traditional ink does not spread as fast as the normal ink we use". James Nye hopes that the recovery operation will be c ompleted by April.

The operations have so far cost the SVK Rs.3 lakhs. Murali expects that the entire cost of the recovery is likely to be in the region of Rs.25 lakhs. Academics in the U.S and in India are trying to raise the resources.

The international community of library conservationists is all praise for the salvage operations. An e-mail sent by James Nye to Murali and Sambi Reddy on August 28, just as the operations were drawing to a close, sums up the appreciation. Nye described them as "miracle workers". "That phrase," he wrote, "is one which international conservation experts here (in the U.S.) have used to describe your actions." He contrasted the successful effort in Hyderabad with a 1966 episode in Florence, Italy, where hi storical records suffered similar damage in floods. Much of the records have been lost forever. An economist in Chennai still rues the loss of some 1981 Census records following a heavy downpour in 1982.

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