Machine Dries Soggy Books

Still, Widener Librarians Say 'A Wet Book is a Dead Duck'

David Moore, supervisor of conservation services at Widener Library, remembers when a book fished out of the Charles River was restored to readable condition.

Widener has the technological capacity to work such miracles, but officials, who would prefer not to use it, are embarking on a campaign to protect library valuables.

New plastic bags issued by Lamont Library which say "A Wet Book is a Dead Duck" are intended to make students care for the library's volumes, and, if the books get wet, bring them in for fixing.

"The important thing is that students not be afraid to turn in a wet or damaged book," Moore said.

But if such mauled manuscripts are returned to the library, Widener is prepared. The library uses a $20,000 Wei-T'o freeze-drying machine, a modified freezer which uses sublimation to rescue up to 150 books at a time.

When a wet book is placed in the machine, accurate temperature controls freeze the water to preserve the pages before dry-heating it to rapidly remove the offending moisture.

Space for 800 Wet Books

Moore said Widener once had nearly 800 books in one day to dry, although since the machine's arrival at the library in the late 80s, its full capacity has never been needed.

And in the event of an overload, he said, Dickens could mingle with chickens, since the library could use Harvard Dining Services freezers.

Moore said that although some damaged books cannot be returned to their original condition, it is possible to restore almost any volume to "usable" condition.

"In many cases, it will not apparent that a book was ever damaged," Moore said.

And it is not only capricious New England weather which puts the volumes at risk.

Dripping air conditioners or spilled orange juice, for instance, are dangers as well, said Marion Taylor, preservation review librarian at Widener.

"We are also responsible for disaster preparedness. The possibility of floods and leaks in the library is much more of a problem [than rain]," Taylor said.

But the most preventable worry is the students, and there is no doubt they are abashed at the prospect of turning in a dripping mass of pulp at the Lamont desk.

Students employed at Lamont library said wet books are returned almost exclusively to the anonymous book drop, and never in person.