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To save Italy’s antique books, preservationists turn to deep freezers

Major floods have damaged priceless works


A preservationist cleans books and manuscripts dating to 1500-1600 at the library of the Forlì seminary. Getty Images/Photo by Antonio Masiello

To save Italy’s antique books, preservationists turn to deep freezers

Italian experts are attempting to salvage irreplaceable books damaged in floods by putting them in freezers.

Last month, flooding in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy damaged 75 monuments, 12 libraries, and six archaeological sites. In Cesena, water flooded the Malatestiana Library, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 1400s that contains antique books and manuscripts. In nearby Forli, the town hall archives reported many damaged books due to the flooding. Throughout the area, there are likely thousands of documents, some dating as far back as the Renaissance, that will need to be salvaged.

The floods in Italy were unusually bad due to a combination of a monthslong drought and heavy rains. Parts of the Emilia-Romagna region received about half of their average rainfall within a span of 36 hours in mid-May. Drought can harden soil and reduce the water absorption levels, leaving water from heavy rains with nowhere to go. Almost two dozen rivers overflowed. The floods killed at least 15 people, displaced thousands, and damaged property, including historical sites and museums.

After May’s flooding, volunteers placed books in plastic bags before transporting them in airtight boxes to commercial freezers where they were stored at minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Freeze drying is a standard treatment for wet or waterlogged documents or any paper based product,” said Gary McGowan, president and principal conservator of Cultural Preservation and Restoration Inc. He said experts sometimes repair waterlogged documents using a freeze dryer, a machine about the height and length of a child’s bicycle.

The process of freeze drying cannot restore deteriorated documents to their original states, but it can help stabilize the books’ condition and lessen damage from rot and mold. “Freeze drying can be very successful in halting those reactions,” McGowan said. Freezing documents helps prevent further damage or erosion and draws out the water. Experts in Italy used a commercial size freezer, which McGowan said was likely due to how many documents required restoration.

Carabinieri for the protection of cultural heritage freeze books and manuscripts after the flood at the library of the Forlì seminary.

Carabinieri for the protection of cultural heritage freeze books and manuscripts after the flood at the library of the Forlì seminary. Getty Images/Photo by Antonio Masiello

In one method, experts keep the object frozen and use the freeze dryer to draw the water off as crystals, which are then condensed in a different part of the freeze dryer. The second method involves experts gradually increasing the temperature, removing the water as vapor instead of crystals.

Depending on the condition of the object, the effectiveness of freeze drying varies greatly. Other factors like silt or mold could affect the recovery process. Among the recovered books is a 16th century book. “Age in itself … doesn’t really make a difference,” McGowan said. “It’s more of what the type of material is and what the state of preservation is of that document.” The length of the recovery process can take anywhere from hours to a month.

The recovery process will be lengthy, due to the number of damaged documents. The Italian government has approved a 2 billion euro aid package for Emilia-Romagna. To fund the aid, they are raising admission prices to state museums by 1 euro for three months.


Johanna Huebscher

Johanna Huebscher is a student at Bob Jones University and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

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