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Weimar blazes a trail with restoration of burned books

Library has saved half a million pages since major fire of 2004

Ten days after the fire in 2004 that engulfed the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar and devoured a treasure trove of German national culture, the Berliner Zeitung newspaper declared the library “beyond saving”, saying that it would be “stupid” to try to restore the books.

For library staff, there was no doubt that whatever could be salvaged, should be. Around 50,000 books were burned to a cinder and lost forever—but 12 years later, a new permanent exhibition at the library examines how a further 118,000 damaged books were saved. By the beginning of this year, 95,660 of these had been restored.

“Any single workshop would give up faced with these quantities,” says Michael Knoche, the director of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library. “We worked with many workshops and organisations around the world but still maintained quality. It was a breakthrough in terms of volume and has achieved a change of perspective in the book restoration world.”

Bandaged and freeze-dried The blaze on 2 September 2004, caused by aged and faulty electrical wiring, devastated the historic building and its famous Rococo Hall—a Unesco World Heritage Site—shortly before a long-planned renovation was due to start. Among the treasures damaged or destroyed were the music collections of Anna Amalia and of Tsar Paul I’s daughter Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, a rare collection of Hebraica and 37 paintings dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

On the night of the fire, a human chain of emergency workers, library employees and volunteers passed thousands of books to safety. Forty-seven tonnes were transported to the Leipzig Centre for Book Conservation, where they were wrapped in bandages and freeze-dried.

The exhibition examines the effects of fire, heat and water on paper, leather and parchment, and includes books, fragments, models and videos to demonstrate restoration techniques. Lined up in a row, the damaged books would stretch for 3km. Thirty-seven thousand books suffered water or fire damage to their bindings. A further 56,000 were smoke-damaged or had previously been contaminated with wood-protection chemicals, rust or pesticides.

Another 25,000, termed “ash books”, were burned to fragments and had to be salvaged from containers of blackened remnants that had been removed from the library after the fire. In 2004, these remnants were impossible to restore because of the manual labour it would have required, but more than half of the 1.2 million pages have now been restored. The library has patented a process invented by its restorers, in which several damaged and fragile pages can simultaneously be given wet repair treatment, stored and transported in a compression cartridge.

The library was restored at a cost of €13m and reopened in 2007. Restoring the books will cost more and take longer. By the end of 2015, €40.5m of an estimated total cost of €67m had been raised. The library estimates that it will take another eight years to finish restoring the “ash books” and to conserve unique, damaged music manuscripts.