In 1966 the Arno River running through Florence, Italy, flooded. Over two days, it brought with it hundreds of thousands of tons of mud, rubble and sewerage, creeping up through cellars and rupturing central heating oil tanks, so that oil mixed with the floodwaters as well.
About 100 people died and 5,000 families were left homeless. Of course, in that strange way we have, what really lives on in our collective world consciousness is the damage to Florence’s books. It’s estimated that 3-4 million books and manuscripts were damaged, as well as some 14,000 pieces of art.
At the Biblioteca del Gabinetto Vieusseux, for example, all 250,000 volumes in the collection were damaged. The books became swollen and distorted as they were submerged in the floodwaters. The floodwaters had physical force, as well — after the floodwaters receded, individual pages that had come loose from their texts were found pressed upon the walls and ceiling of the building.
To salvage these books, Florence’s ‘Mud Angels’, as they became known, not only had to dry out the books as quickly as possible, in order to prevent mould growth, but to wash and disinfect them first (where possible). Despite an extensive and ongoing treatment program, there are still warehouses of books and manuscripts in storage, waiting for full cleaning and repair.
Though restorers and conservators had existed prior to 1966, of course, the Florence flood really marked the beginning of conservation as a modern profession. The world was shocked by the extent of the damage. The United States passed its National Historic Preservation Act in the same year. Preservation and conservation training centres were set up around the world. New treatment methods, such as “phased conservation” and mass deacidification, were developed as a direct result of the disaster.
Why is it, that the destruction of books fills us with such horror? Why do we assign them such value? In part, I suppose, because older books like those in Florence are rare, perhaps the only copy in existence. The represent not only the store of human knowledge but the the labours of thousands of men and women. In some cases, people died for these books. We have an innate respect for effort, skill, mastery, passion. And, many of these books are older than us, by centuries. With luck, they will last many centuries after we are dead. There is a kind of power in a item that persists beyond the temporary heartbeat and breath of our mortal vessels. Our vessel, once life leaves it, is fairly meaningless – though we still accord the body respect. A book is only a vessel, made of dead things, through which (somehow) a person’s mind can be preserved long past their death.
When I used to run disaster preparedness workshops for small museums, one of the hardest messages to impart was that you are supposed to put yourself first, not the collection. Curators and archivists and librarians have to be convinced not to run into drowning buildings, that their own lives are more precious.
For some images of the damage caused by the flood, see this post at An Archivist Scribbles.