All About Books

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Ray Hahn

All About Books

Part I – Wet Books Dateline: Paris, France, 1910 Dateline: Florence, Italy, 1966 Dateline: Cleveland, Ohio, 1975 Dateline: Fort Collins, Colorado, 1997 Dateline: Prague, Czech Republic, 2002 The first record keeping of water damage to holdings of libraries and repositories began circa 1911 when the government of France was attempting an assessment of the damage caused by the Paris flood of January 1910. There have been dozens of instances where water has cause damage to rare and irreplaceable books, documents, microforms, and science monographs in locations around the world. The five listed above were the worst. In November 1966, the Arno River flooded Florence, Italy. One-hundred-one people were killed and the damage to millions of masterpieces of art and rare books reached values exceeding one billion dollars. In August 1975 the library of the Case Western Reserve University was flooded due to record-setting rainfall. More than 40-thousand books and over 50-thousand maps were completely submerged when more than twelve feet of water flowed unrestricted into the university library. In July 1997 a storm dumped fourteen inches of rain on Fort Collins, Colorado in just 31 hours. The Morgan Library at Colorado State University was flooded. The loss of over 500,000 bound journals and government documents caused the university to completely reset its curriculum and research laboratories at a cost that reached beyond $500 million. Similar events continued into the 2000s. In August 2002 the City of Prague (Czech Republic) was flooded and lost eight million government documents along with one of only twelve known copies of the 1488 Czech language Bible. In 2004 the tsunami in southeast Asia destroyed or severely damaged hundreds of southeast Asian language libraries. On Sri Lanka alone 233 school, public, religious and corporate libraries were totally lost. The events continue: 2008 in New York, 2009 in Finland, 2011, 2015, 2018, 2019, and just a few months ago in Kentucky, USA. Through the efforts of both Italian and foreign volunteers alike, known affectionately as  angeli del fango (Mud Angels), many of the fine art pieces in Florence have been restored, however even decades later, much work remains to be done. As the wait continues, millions of water damaged items await new methods of conservation and restoration. The postcard below shows us one of the pioneer efforts to restore water damaged treasures.
The image above is a General Electric vacuum chamber used to freeze-dry flood-damaged books. This technology was first used in 1972 in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. While the best-known freeze-dried product is instant coffee, fruits, vegetables, and even cooked meats can reap the benefits of extended shelf life through freeze drying. The mechanics of this technology is long and complicated except to say the process must be done completely within a vacuum. To date the photograph on the card above is the only published effort known to recondition items such as books and manuscripts. Certainly, there are scientists and research librarian seeking solutions to the problem of water damage, but it seems that very little data is available. There are several research projects published by amateurs, but for professional and positive results we must continue to wait. Part 2 – Big Books The largest surviving book in Europe is one supposedly written with the help of the Devil. The story varies depending on who is telling it, but in summary its most common version dates to the early thirteenth century. In a Benedictine monastery in Bohemia there lived a scribe named Herman the Recluse who was condemned to be immured for breaking his vows.
Being immured is a very slow, lonely, and painful death sentence. The condemned is sealed inside a wall from which there is no escape. There is no room to sit or move about. There is no light or fresh air. No food nor drink is offered. Herman was truly repentant for his sins and pleaded with his abbot to be forgiven. The abbot decided to forgive Herman’s sins if he could complete an arduous task in one night. He was to write down all of humanity’s knowledge in a book that was especially prepared for his punishment. Herman wrote frantically but at midnight he admitted defeat and prayed for help from the Devil. By morning Lucifer managed to complete Herman’s assignment with an exquisitely illustrated manuscript that was entitled The Codex Gigas that was presented to Herman when he awoke. The book was so large that it was necessary to use the hides of 160 donkeys to make the 309, thirty-six-inch-high parchment pages. Herman’s sins were forgiven, but it could be suggested that he still had a bit of the devil in-him. Herman included a dedication – a full-page portrait of the Prince of Darkness – before he surrendered the book to his abbot.
The legend continued with diverse outcomes until 1648. By then the book, which weighs 165 pounds, found its way to the library in Prague of the Holy Roman Emperor and Prince Rudolf II of the Habsburg family. Rudolf’s ineffectual administration led to the Thirty Years’ War in which Sweden was one of the belligerents aligned with the Kingdom of Bohemia. At the end of the war, Rudolf’s book collection was taken as spoils of war to Stockholm where it is now on display to the public at the Swedish National Library. The Codex Gigas was the impetus to create other large books such as The Great Qur’an of Sanarkand, the story of this Qur’an (commissioned to be the most beautiful book in the world) starts in 1399, but equally impressive are the enormous antiphonaries that originated in the shires of northeast England. These cumbersome tomes often lived their lives unmolested on some fairly robust lecterns in churches across Europe. The volumes contained the antiphons (chants) of liturgical choirs. The pages were filled with heavy-handed, square, and diamond shaped musical notations used in both Ambrosian and Gregorian chanting. Its size often facilitated its use by singers in large groups sharing a single volume. Moving and even opening one of the larger antiphonaries required great skill and great strength. The card below shows an unidentified librarian at work. There is no photo credit, but the card is from a Swedish manufacturer.
Part 3 – Famous Books The Book of the Naughty and Nice is one of legend. To the best of everyone’s knowledge there is only one copy, but there are millions of children from around the world who believe, for sure that their names are inscribed in this book. The following legend of How Santa Claus Knows Who is Naughty and Who is Nice comes from an ages-old British tradition. It may be fun to put your grandson or granddaughter on your knee and retell this tale. Many centuries ago, when it was decided that only those children who were good would be rewarded with a visit from Santa Claus, it posed the problem of how to keep track of every child’s behavior. The Elves set about solving this problem with a little of their magic. When each child is born they are given their own pigeonhole in the Hall of Records at the North Pole. In their pigeonhole is a Year Glass (similar to an hourglass) which is made with Elven magic and tuned into each child at birth. Throughout a child’s life, every time a child does something good the sand grains flow over to the nice side and every time they do something bad, sand travels over to the naughty side. Each year when it is time (the day is always kept secret) Santa checks all the Year-Glasses and writes the names in the book of naughty and nice children, those with more sand on the nice side of the Year Glass go on to the nice list and those with more sand on the naughty side go on the naughty list. No one except Santa and his Elves knows where the book is kept, but parents who get the list from an elf can check for accuracy. Perhaps there is an unlisted cell-phone number given to moms and dads when no one is watching. Check your contacts list to see if there is a number for Claus!
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What a great story! Many thanks for taking time to write the story and put it out there. I wish I had more friends that had access to it and many of the stories this wonderful site contains. This particular one is so interesting.

In 1975, I turned sixteen and was a voracious reader living in a suburb of Cleveland, yet I somehow don’t remember the destruction of the books at Case Western Reserve University.

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