[Paleopsych] NYT: Devastation, Now Salvage, Page by Page
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Tue Jan 11 18:59:11 UTC 2005
Devastation, Now Salvage, Page by Page
NYT November 20, 2004
By ANDREAS TZORTZIS
LEIPZIG, Germany - Bent over books once held by Goethe and
Schiller, workers in white lab coats brush away ash and
creeping mold, doing their best to salvage the
centuries-old victims of a recent fire that devastated one
of Germany's cultural treasures.
About 2,000 books are stacked on tables behind the workers
in a large room at the Center for Book Conservation here.
The books are a small portion of the 62,000 heavily damaged
in a fire at the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar in
"I was pretty crushed, because I know the library," said
Manfred Anders, the center's director and chief executive,
as he thumbed through brittle pages. "I know what sorts of
books are in there. The value of the collection is in front
of your eyes." In the weeks since the Sept. 2 fire, Mr.
Anders has served as a sort of nurse to the books rescued
from the flames and water.
About 10 percent of the library's collection of a million
books has been irreparably damaged, library officials say.
But the 600-piece Bible collection, including Martin
Luther's 1534 copy, and the huge Faust and Shakespeare
collections have been saved or only slightly damaged.
And between 25,000 and 30,000 other rare books are presumed
lost, listed like missing persons in a databank on the
library's Web site.
"The texts in Weimar were of a special nature in that they
had their own history," said Michael Knoche, the library's
director since 1991, emphasizing their personal connections
with the greats of German literature. "They were used by
Goethe, Schiller and Wieland. They wrote on the book
covers, or margins." Geothe was himself administrator of
the library, which was established in 1691.
The fire, which the police blame on an electrical short in
the 473-year-old building, started in the upper two floors
and devastated the 18th-century Rococo salon built by the
library's namesake, Duchess Anna Amalia of Saxony-Weimar.
Before firefighters could control the flames, most of the
duchess's personal musical collection, thousands of books
from the 16th to 18th century and 33 oil paintings were
Those damaged by the fire and water were quickly shipped
off to Mr. Anders's center, one of the largest in the
world. In the last few weeks, specialists there have dried
and "stabilized" them.
Now, Mr. Anders and library officials are preparing for
perhaps an even bigger challenge: holding the interest of
the government and the public long enough to help finance
the tens of millions it will cost to rebuild the damaged
collection. "I am very worried about that," Mr Knoche said.
He was among those in the human chain formed to pull books
out of the library even as the roof continued to burn.
"The reaction we received after the fire, it was
overwhelming," he said, adding that he feared that in the
three years it is estimated the building restoration will
take, at a cost of more than $12 million (10 million
euros), the public will have lost interest.
And no one is ready to talk about how long it will take to
restore the cultural treasures the building contained. In
the week after the disaster, trucks filled with books
arrived daily at the center, situated in a bland office
complex on the outskirts of Leipzig. About 34,000 had
suffered heavy water damage and another 28,000 both fire
and water damage. It will be up to Mr. Anders, Mr. Knoche
and a team of book restoration experts to determine just
how great a blow the fire was to Europe's cultural legacy.
Clearly, the scope of the disaster has not been lost on
literary fans abroad, or on the residents of Weimar, many
of whom seem to have almost a personal attachment to the
city's treasures. More than $2 million has so far been
donated to the library, either from benefit concerts or
private donations. But the amount is not nearly enough,
experts say. Complete restoration of a single book,
depending on how great the damage, can cost between $491
and $3,194. With an estimated 62,000 books with various
degrees of damage, the total could reach more than $73
A $4.9 million pledge from the state and federal
governments will go to reconstructing and renovating the
Baroque library. The $1.8 million devoted to book
restoration is only intended for immediate first aid -
brushing the books clear of debris and mold and forcing
them back into their original shapes.
That done, the books are wrapped in plastic bags and
stacked in a large freezer at minus 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
They are finally transferred to a gigantic freeze-drying
machine that evaporates the ice into gas, so that the books
don't suffer additional water damage.
"First we dry them, and then the question is what is
possible," said Mr. Anders, a chemist by training. "And
that question is not necessarily dependent on the
technology, but the financial possibilities."
He said that when it comes to the country's cultural
legacy, German public officials are more inclined to invest
in building preservation than in the written treasures
contained inside. Book restorers say their trade is a small
but growing industry in Germany ultimately limited by how
much spare cash individual donors, foundations or
"Restoration is a preventative measure for the future,"
said Helmut Bansa, a retired professor and publisher of the
trade publication Restaurator. "Like in other areas, it is
often cut in order to save money, to the disadvantage of
Following the floods along the Elbe River in Germany in
2002, book restorers saw a spike in interest in their work,
but that curiosity ebbed. For the last several weeks,
reporters and photographers have descended on Mr. Anders's
center asking for interviews and filming portions of the 80
tons of soaked and blackened books being pulled out of
Mr. Anders is grateful for every photo op, knowing that his
business often depends on the free publicity. Spun off of
the German National Library in 1998, the Center for Book
Conservation has seen the number of contracts it receives
sink in recent years, but it still has one from the Library
of Congress in the United States - to work on 10,880 pages
of American newspapers from the 1940's and 1950's to extend
The Weimar state agency responsible for the library
estimates that the first books will not be restored until
the end of 2005 at the earliest. To raise money for this
work, a number of events are planned, including an
exhibition of the art saved from the fire. "At the moment,
we have no other choice but to keep people talking about
us," Mr. Knoche said.
Thousands of books, stabilized for the time being by the
center, have already made their way back to Weimar. The
deliveries will continue at the rate of roughly 2,000 a
week until the middle of 2005.
The library already has an underground storage facility in
which it had planned to hold the collection ahead of its
move to a new building. It was five weeks before the move
that the fire broke out.
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