Treasured homecoming

Recovery: Six months after a leaking pipe nearly destroyed a rare collection, the Peabody Library's books are back - in pristine condition.

January 29, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

It's an unusual assembly line - a row of 20 workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder at Baltimore's George Peabody Library, passing one another scores of 19th-century short stories, poems and literary essays from the likes of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The workers are refilling the stacks with 8,000 rare books that were nearly destroyed by water six months ago when a pipe leaked. The volumes have made a remarkable recovery, thanks to a process of freeze-dried restoration. It cost about $300,000, but now the library has the rare collection back.

Cynthia H. Requardt - special collections curator at the 125-year-old library, which specializes in works acquired in the late-19th and early-20th centuries - could barely contain her glee at the homecoming, after what amounted to a long stay at a book hospital for the volumes.

"It's nice to have them all coming home again," Requardt said, looking up at the lofty library's six stories of stacks. "They look in wonderful shape."

The pristine condition of the restored books surpassed even the most optimistic expectations.

"All 8,000 [volumes] are going to be perfectly fine. In a way, it's a miracle," said Winston Tabb, dean of the Johns Hopkins University library system, which administers the Peabody Library. "We were extremely fortunate we caught the [water] damage quickly, since speed is what matters most in recovery. This is a very happy ending."

The cost of the recovery was covered by insurance, Tabb said. Library officials initially feared that at least 60 to 70 books would be lost and many others would sustain some degree of permanent damage, he added.

The damage was caused when a drain clogged in August and water from a rooftop air conditioner trickled into the six floors of books while the library was closed for renovations.

Library officials enlisted a Middlesex, N.Y., company, Document Reprocessors, to dry out the books through the process of vacuum freeze drying, which is known for preventing mold. The process freezes moisture into ice, then converts the ice into vapor without becoming liquid again.

Quintin Schwartz, general manager of Document Reprocessors, orchestrated the assembly line up the narrow library stairs from the snowy slope of East Mount Vernon Place, where three heated trucks containing the book cargo were stationed. The restacking of the volumes began on Monday and largely ended yesterday.

Schwartz said the books were meticulously packed so that each volume would be put back in its proper place, next to the same neighboring books as before the damage.

"I have the entire inventory of boxes in the computer, telling us what floor, what aisle and what shelf they belong on," he said. A point of pride, he said, was that more than the book pages and contents were saved - the original bindings, engravings and handwritten signatures of former owners also weathered freeze-drying unscathed.

One worker, Matt Parsell, 24, cradled an 1849 burgundy leather volume of Wordsworth's Poetical Works yesterday, then placed it back on a wood shelf in the poetry and literature section. There Wordsworth's verses will keep quiet company again with those of fellow English Romantic poet Coleridge and the tales and letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. The works of other English bards - Chaucer, Swift and Pope - and the plays of Shakespeare are also restored and ready to be handled again.

The book collection does not circulate outside the building, librarians said, but it is free for use by all visitors. Although it is housed in the Peabody Conservatory, the collection is not music-based but of general interest with an emphasis on 19th-century journals and periodicals, such as Harpers magazine, the London Illustrated News and the Correspondent, a French publication of politics and philosophy.

Nineteenth-century volumes make up much of the 300,000- piece Peabody collection, but it also holds editions that go back to the 15th century, when the printing press was invented, and up to the early 20th century. Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe are among the American writers whose works are on the shelves.

Sonja Jordan, the director of preservation, said the near-disaster would go down in the annals of Peabody and library history. "It was a textbook recovery," she said.

Jordan left the Chicago Public Library to work in Baltimore last summer, hardly a month before the crisis. Picking up an 1815 London quarterly that gave an account of a discovery voyage to "that vast country, Terra Australia," Jordan said wryly, "This is what I'm going to read when I have time."

The library will reopen to the public May 11 after extensive renovations to the entire institute are completed. When it does, Tabb said, the library will be redesigned to better suit readers and will also play host to fewer parties and banquets.

"The library is books and readers surrounded by inspirational space," Tabb said. "It will be mainly a library where special events will occur, but not nearly as many as before."

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