Coffee-stained book
(Staff photo illustration by Justin Ide)

In 1967 the Arno river overflowed its banks and Florence, Italy, became flooded. The rising water spelled disaster for many libraries and museums. Priceless books, manuscripts, and other objects were soaked. Many were ruined.

But there was an upside to the catastrophe. Conservators from all over the world came to Florence to help out. As they worked to save Florence’s treasures, the conservators shared knowledge and developed new techniques for dealing with such disasters. Today many remember the Florentine clean-up as a watershed (no pun intended) in the history of library and museum conservation.

Much of that knowledge, brought up-to-date by newer techniques, is available on a series of newly designed Harvard Web pages. The “emergencies” section of the Library Preservation Web site contains information about emergency preparedness as well as emergency recovery. It offers lists of readings, suggested supplies, and procedures for responding to emergencies involving Harvard’s library collections. The information can be found at

According to Jane Hedberg, preservation program officer, the Web is the ideal place for disseminating such information.

“We have such a decentralized system that the Web is a brilliant tool for communication,” she said.

Wondering what to do if you discover a bunch of old books are floating in backed-up sewer water or if a parchment manuscript gets soaked by an automatic sprinkler? The emergency Web pages can tell you, plus a lot more. The Web pages, prepared by the Weissman Preservation Center in the Harvard University Library and the Preservation & Imaging Department in the Harvard College Library, also contain forms and questionnaires to enable librarians at each of Harvard’s more than 90 libraries to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

Hedberg encourages both librarians and individuals with damaged books to call the Preservation Center for advice. That novel that got left out on a lawn chair during a rainstorm may not be the goner you fear it is. Hedberg’s advice is to stand the book up, fan out the pages, and let it air dry. When there is still a bit of moisture left in the pages, place the book in a press to get it back to its original shape.

At the other end of the spectrum, large numbers of severely water-damaged books may have to be freeze-dried, a technique that was developed at NASA and is the same as that used to make instant coffee. Widener Library has the equipment to handle a couple of hundred books in this way.

If the casualties are larger, there is a facility in Fort Worth, Texas, that can deal with the overflow. But with fingers crossed, Hedberg points out there hasn’t been a disaster of that magnitude at Harvard in the two years she’s been here.