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Monday, 29 October 2007 01:22

Between East and West

Written by  Kirk Blackmon
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Fire. It can happen anywhere at anytime, but when it breaks out in a 275-year-old library, there is a special sense of urgency.

That feeling was dramatically heightened when fire broke out in the USSR Academy of Sciences Library in Leningrad in February of 1988. The BAN, as the library is known in Russia, houses more than four million books and archival documents, some of them dating back to the time of Peter the Great.

The contents of the BAN, a sprawling, centuries-old structure, are recognized internationally as one of modern civilization’s treasures.

News that 400,000 books and papers were destroyed by the fire and an additional three-and-a-half million items, including some 200,000 volumes from the collection of rare foreign books known as BAER, had sustained varying degrees of smoke and water damage galvanized the conservation community.

The BAN’s staff launched disaster recovery efforts immediately, but the political and economic climate in the Soviet Union severely curtailed access to the latest restoration theories, new technologies and the financial resources needed to mount a cleanup effort of this magnitude.

Recognizing the scope of the task, BAN’s director Valery P. Leonov sent out a plea for help to the international conservation community.

The Getty Conservation Institute, Reader’s Digest, the International Federation of Library Associations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and other organizations took immediate steps to assemble a multi-national task force.

The United States Library of Congress (LC) responded to the emergency by forming a team of experts to travel to Leningrad to assess the damage and offer technical assistance.

BMS Catastrophe (BMS CAT), one of North America’s largest restoration companies, was among the handful of firms chosen by the LC to participate. The Fort Worth based company specializes in helping business and industry recover from catastrophic events like fire and flood.

Its highly trained crews come in and clean everything from walls, carpets and furniture, to electronics, computers, and data media like magnetic tapes and micro film. They can dehumidify buildings, decontaminate HVAC systems, even remove hazardous waste.

But it was the company’s reputation for restoring books and documents that brought it to the attention of the organizers of BAN’s relief effort.

Peter Waters, Director of Conservation for the Library of Congress, elected to include representatives from BMS CAT in this symposium, “Conservation and Disaster Recovery: International Cooperation at the Library of the USSR Academy of Sciences,” because the company is accustomed to restoring sensitive archival items on a large-scale basis.

“We see far more disasters than conservators do,” said Larry Wood, BMS CAT’s chief engineer who estimates the company easily handles tens of thousands of cubic feet of books and documents annually. “We are experts at cleaning up the initial damage and halting further deterioration. But to bring something back to pristine conditions, you need a restoration artist.”

While complete restoration of the more than three million damaged books and documents may be a long-term goal, it will not happen quickly.

The 1966 flood in Florence, for instance, damaged far fewer volumes yet restoration efforts are just now nearing completion nearly 25 years later.

To complicate matters, conservators at the BAN find themselves faced with this herculean task at a time of national crisis within the Soviet Union. The economic hurdles faced by the country limit government spending to only the most pressing human issues.

In light of these hurdles, the multi-national task force elected to forge an on-going relationship with the BAN by linking its staff with the world’s experts through a series of information exchanges.

The Leningrad symposium, the first in the series, provided participants a firsthand opportunity to see the extent of the damage done to the library and laid the foundation for building a support system for the BAN.

At that time, plans were made to bring Irina Belyaeva, BAN’s chief librarian, and Andre Solovjev, a computer programming specialist credited with designing a method of keeping track of the damaged books during the restoration process, to the United States for a further look at Western disaster-recovery methods and contingency-planning models.

“Freeze-drying has become the most sound technique for important documents,” said Waters, referring to the basic process used to restore water-damaged books and BMS CAT’s specialty. The company operates what are believed to be the two largest units in the country designed for this purpose.

But listening to experts describe the process and seeing it in action are two different things. Western restoration experts wanted members of the BAN’s staff to have a hands-on demonstration.

“Conservationists developed the theories and wrote the books on the techniques BMS CAT employs, but few of them have ever seen their ideas put into practice on such a grand scale,” said Woods. “We wanted an opportunity to show them what can be accomplished.”

The company got its chance this past April when the Library of Congress served as host for the second information exchange. As a part of the U.S. activities, Waters accompanied BAN’s representatives to BMS CAT’s Texas headquarters to attend a forum on museum and library disaster-recovery planning. BMS CAT assembled a panel of experts to discuss the latest innovations in their fields and extended an invitation to attend the seminar to conservationists throughout the region who could serve as conduits for communicating the need to funnel aid and financial resources to BAN.

Participants included Richard Young, Director of Conservation for the US Senate; Dr. Klaus Hendriks, Research Director of the Conservation Division of the National Archives of Canada; Ellen McCrady, editor of the prestigious Abbey Newsletter; Toby Murray, managing editor of Conservation Administration News, and other notable leaders in the preservation field.

The two-day conference was a resounding success, and it also allowed BMS CAT to demonstrate to the Soviets the tools and techniques it uses for structural restoration.

As part of its own contribution to the international cooperative effort, BMS CAT has offered to send a core of restoration specialists to spearhead an on-the-job training course for BAN personnel. While a CAT crew cleans a section of the damaged facility using the equipment and methods pioneered by the company, supervisors will teach a team of BAN specialists how to use these techniques to restore the rest of the fire-gutted library. “The immediate crisis has passed,” said Wood. “Now there is just a lot of work to be done, and to do it BAN needs the expertise and financial assistance of organizations who recognize the importance of preserving the rich, cultural heritage the library represents for future generations.”

Kirk Blackmon is president of BMS Catastrophe, a restoration company based in Fort Worth, TX.

This article adapted from Vol. 4 #4.

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