Katie Wagner, Libraries Book Conservator, and I arrived in Port-au-Prince on May 23rd to assist with the Haiti Cultural Recovery Program. The project focused on surface cleaning and rehousing the rare book collection from the Bibliothèque Nationale d’Haiti.
We met with Francoise Beaulieu-Thybulle, Library Director, who gave us a tour of the stacks containing monographs that have been exposed to open windows, high humidity, direct sunlight, and dust.
Collection storage at the Bibliothèque Nationale
In general, the monographs were Haitian and French imprints. Most dated from the 19th century and early 20thcentury with the typical signs of deterioration from that period: brittle acidic textblocks and detached boards. Several had received previous and crude efforts at conservation treatment, many using pressure sensitive tape . Due to our limited time of two weeks on the project, the best treatment option for this large collection was to surface clean, and rehouse the books while protecting them from the dust until a safer environment within the library can be constructed. The newly planned space will limit exposure to the aforementioned preservation issues.
Typical condition of rare monographs
We were assigned to work in a room reserved for computer use and thankfully, this was one of the few rooms with air conditioning in the building. The first box of 50 books was delivered from the stacks and Katie and I supplied the staff with dust masks, aprons, gloves, cloths, and brushes.
We demonstrated with this first box of books the process for removing dust and surface dirt . I also made the decision that books with any loose parts (spine covering, boards, pages) would be wrapped in acid-free paper in lieu of more sturdy boxes or enclosures that were not available at that time.
Once cleaned and wrapped, the books were returned in groups of approximately 50 to cardboard boxes that were sealed and numbered. In the future, the wrapped volumes could easily be identified as those requiring further conservation treatment.
Our intended goal was to complete 300 books per day, and by the end of the first day we had cleaned and documented 350 monographs. The week continued with such good will and hard work by the library staff that by Friday we had cleaned, documented, and re-boxed 1458 monographs of which 598 were wrapped in tissue and 9 were isolated due to mold.
Since our departure on June 3rd we have been in touch with the group of library technicians to instruct them on the next steps (cleaning as discussed, and continuing to compare the collection database to written lists made at the time of packing). The library staff responded positively to the project and its details. Their diligence, in addition to the cooperation of the Cultural Recovery Conservation Center and their drivers who transported us safely between locations, made it possible to achieve such significant goals during our time in Port-au-Prince.
Vanessa Haight Smith