Thursday, March 19, 2009

More thoughts on Cologne

I somehow missed this Der Spiegel article, which was published last week and which highlights the monumental challenges that confront the archivists and conservators leading the recovery effort at the site of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne. The good news is that as much as 25 percent of the repository's holdings had already been recovered. The bad news is that the weather has not cooperated and that many of the recovered records will require intensive conservation treatment:

. . . The archivists are engaged in a race against time. Soon after the building collapsed, rain began falling on the ruins. Rubble is being brought to a dry warehouse so that workers can carefully sift through it in the search for documents. Once paper gets wet, though, damaging mold quickly sets in. Archive material is being sent to restoration facilities around the country where they will be flash frozen and then stored for two years before they can be cleaned.

It is an immense project, and one which will take years, if not decades, to complete. A restoration workshop in the city of Münster, for example, can restore up to 150 meters worth of documents per year. The material in the Cologne archive, however, took up fully 30 kilometers of shelf space. In addition, Markus Stumpf, who heads up the archival office in Münster, told Handelsblatt that "the personnel necessary for such a catastrophe simply doesn't exist."

Adding to the difficulties is the fact that many of the documents housed in the Cologne archive were parchment, instead of paper. "The parchment used for deeds in the Middle Ages is extremely sensitive to water," Jan op de Hipt, head restorer for the Hamburg state library, told the Hamburger Abendblatt. "Parchment is dried animal skin. When it comes into contact with water, it becomes very soft and begins to shrink."

The recovery effort is in its earliest stages, and the need for facilities, supplies, and expert personnel will not abate in a few weeks or months. If you are interested in helping, Archivalia and Salon Jewish Studies have compiled and translated lots of information for prospective volunteers and donors. Also, Frank Sobiech posted some additional information in a 10 March comment on this blog and Mark added another contact in an 11 March comment. Thanks to both of them for this information.

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