Brittle, acidic, and damaged books line the walls of the preservation department in the University Library. The “worst cases” are separated from the others by bright green warning flags sticking out of their covers. These quarantined books usually cultivate a variety of molds — diseased I like to call them — dying from the inside out with black spots growing like some sort of cancer upon the page.
All the books sit on the shelves of a sterile laboratory, which contains multiple “stations,” or counters, for the binding technicians that work there. At each station there is a set of standard tools for treating the books: cutting mat, ruler, paste, paintbrush, and knife. The majority of the books and periodicals that travel through the department are not what one would call classic or rare–nor are they old. They tend to have been published in the last fifty years and were simply neglected: left in the dank corner of a basement, placed on a shelf to collect dust for decades, or simply forgotten in the endless stacks of the library. I can spend hours checking the quality of the pictures and text of these books, sometimes breathing in the powdered remains of once tangible text–surgical masks are provided, but rarely worn.
Many know nothing of the preservation department at the Northwestern University Library. Why would they? It exists in the bowels of the library, behind a locked door on the lowest level–no windows and only one way in and out. Even after working in the department for a full academic year, I was still uncertain of the exact responsibilities and importance of preservation. My days in the lab were a vague and monotonous series of busy nothings. Check page, fix page. Page after page after page. When asked about my job, I would draw a blank. I could not remember a single detail.
It took a natural disaster for that to change.
Not long ago, I entered the department for one of my early morning shifts, a cup of coffee in hand to fight the fog in my head. I walked to my desk, set my things down and was about to begin my routine when I noticed something strange. The department was unusually quiet–no shuffling of papers, no hushed discussion at the neighboring station, no typing. Nothing. That is, until I heard the quick patter of shoes in the hall. I got up to look around and immediately ran into one of the secretaries holding a large electric fan.
I was about to ask what had happened when she commanded, “Take this to the fifth floor. They’re waiting for you there.”
It was not until I entered the elevator that I realized I had been walking through the University Library holding a fan with both arms. A student who was late for class stared at me from the opposite end of the elevator, eyeing the fan as if it might suddenly attack. I wanted to explain, but then I remembered I could not.
When I got off on the fifth floor and walked to where I was supposed to meet the others, I was instantly confronted with chaos. Three large fans stood in the middle of a little common area of sorts; they were directed at two tables covered with books left standing up, their pages flapping in the breeze. I stood in the entryway, holding my fan, waiting for someone to notice me, as every office worker available ran about hysterically. They were yelling things like “Strip the pages like this, like this!” and “Move the really wet ones over here!” and “This is worse than the leak in ‘05!”
I spotted my boss towering over a large collection of periodicals and slipped in next to him. When he noticed me, he first grabbed the fan and then explained, “There’s been a leak. Actually, a fire. I don’t know. Something about the roof construction–and all night water has been pouring onto these shelves, and we need to save the books before the water does more damage. Understand?” I nodded silently like a child talking to a stranger. I looked around and tried to find a way to help. The scene reminded me of an emergency room during a crisis. Of course, instead of gurneys there were metal carts; instead of bodies there were books. Some were placing absorbent sheets between the wet pages of the periodicals, so I began to do the same.
After a short period, the heads of staff began to delegate, and order was somewhat restored–though the urgency remained. The room was quiet as we all worked diligently.
It was at that moment that I realized I had a sense of purpose and duty in my work at the library. For the first time I was making an impact, I was doing good. My task that day was not necessarily different from my usual chores: check the pages, fix the pages. Page after page after page. But I took on a new understanding of my situation. At least, I began to understand why the preservation department existed in the first place–why so many people were involved in this rescue (that it was, in fact, a rescue of tradition and culture) and why some of my coworkers dedicated a major portion of their lives to this work.
I shouldn’t forget this, I thought.
And while we the preservers were preoccupied with our textual triage, someone managed to bring up a pair of speakers. They appeared almost magically, and suddenly, a the music of a band foreign to me started to permeate the room. Softly at first, and then the music grew louder; the room erupted with reggae rock beats, which reverberated off the walls and the pages of the drying periodicals. The workers began to smile and their hips began to sway. Nothing seemed incongruent, nothing seemed unimportant.
I can’t allow myself to forget this.
Conversations began amongst us–friendly conversations that had little to do with the department or the books. And, with this, I began to make uniquely human connections with my co-workers, learning the quirks of their life stories. I learned that my boss was singing in a performance of The Pirates of Penzance that weekend, I learned that one of my coworkers was getting married in two months, and I learned that one of the binding technicians worked for the Obama campaign (he handed out free “Obama ‘08″ buttons to the employees).
Page after page after page. And they finally began to dry, and we continued to work. Save the words, preserve the records.
I will never forget this.