AIC 44th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 17th, 2016: Post-flood Development of Mass Treatments at the National Library of Florence: The Roots of Library Conservation

Sheila Waters is the widow of Peter Waters, former Conservation Officer and Chief of the Conservation Division at the Library of Congress, and as such she became intimately connected with the conservation world, and more specifically that of library conservation. Ms. Waters’ talk at AIC’s 44th Annual Meeting in Montreal, Quebec, focused on describing how the profession of book conservation originated in the mud of Florence, where the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firence (BNCF) had been inundated by the flood waters of the Arno River in November 1966.
In November 1966 the Arno River, which runs through the heart of Florence, burst its banks and flooded the BNCF. Books had been stored in the basement in 1944 during World War II and had not been removed. Peter, having a reputation for being an innovative binder after collaborating with Roger Powell on the Book of Kells, was contacted by the British Library’s Howard Nixon, who had been contacted by the director of the BNCF, Dr. Emanuel Casamassima. Told to take two other colleagues and depart for Florence immediately, Peter Waters chose Tony Cains and Dorothy Cumpstey to be his seconds and set up a staging area at the Forte Belvedere for the damaged books.  Below on the map, the location of the BNCF and of Forte Belvedere are circled. The Forte is quite a bit higher in elevation, which explains why it was chosen as an initial staging location.
When Peter arrived in Florence, students were still removing muddy and damaged books from the BNCF. At the Forte, he witnessed the extent of the damage: vellum pages had rotted, and the books were defaced with mud and sawdust. Limp vellum bindings had withstood the onslaught of the flood the best, however, an observation that would have a profound impact on conservation.
Tony Cain and Chris Clarkson took over salvage at the Forte, while Don Etherington took over at the BNCF, where Peter decided to stage future cleaning and triage efforts.
Sheila, an accomplished calligrapher and designer, helped Peter develop a triage “card” in both English and Italian that would help those involved in the recovery effort decide what to do. If a book was labeled “Okay,” for example, it could be handled by a student, but a “STOP” sign indicated that it needed treatment by a specialist.
Benches were installed in the main reading room of the BNCF  where books were mended and bound by as many as 30 workers at one time. Starting in September 1967, smaller books began to be rebound in limp vellum, as this binding style was found to be long-lasting, fairly quick to make, and strong.  The workers at the BNCF and the Forte cleaned, deacidified, and resized the paper; took pH measurements; and performed on-the-spot chemical analysis when necessary. Heat-set tissue was derived as a means for mending torn paper. As the years went by and the damaged volumes were treated and rebound, the conservation space at the BNCF was moved downstairs into the basement of the library, and the number of staff grew smaller. Today there are only a few employees, compared to the 30 employed there immediately after the flood.
Peter Waters was called to help Florence in a time of crisis in November 1966, but it is clear 50 years later, in 2016, that the innovations and procedures that he and his team implemented during the response to the Florence Flood have formed the structure of many basic tenets of library conservation.

Sheila’s talk was a condensed version of her book “Waters Rising: Letters from Florence,” published by The Legacy Press, which contains the letters that the spouses exchanged with one another while Peter was in Florence. Julian Waters, one of Sheila and Peter’s sons, accompanied his mother on the podium and read excerpts of Peter’s letters to Sheila since “he sounds like his father.”

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the flood, there will be a symposium at the University of Michigan on November 3-4, 2016. Attendance is free, but registration is required.
See below for a few links regarding the Florence Flood.
Peter Waters Obituary, NYTimes 2003
30 Years After the Flood, NYTimes 1997

Florence submerged: the flood of November 4, 1966