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Culture

Germany's Cultural Legacy on Ice

How much damage a fire at Weimar's Anna Amalia library did to Germany's cultural legacy will only be clear after a team of bookbinders in Leipzig get done with their work -- and that could take years.

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Headed for the deep freeze

The boxes began arriving late Thursday night, as the embers of the fire that devastated the upper floors of Weimar's cherished Anna Amalia library continued wafting plumes of smoke into the sky above one of Europe's cultural capitals.

The books, all from the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries were covered in ash, or soot-colored water. Some looked like "charcoal briquettes," said Michael Knoche, the director of the 338-year-old library. Others, soaked in the water sprayed by firefighters, were several pounds heavier than their original weight.

The damage done, it's up to a team of bookbinders at the privately-run Center for Book Preservation in Leipzig to lessen its impact. As of Tuesday, a little more than 25,000 books were declared completely lost. Of the estimated 50,000 pulled from the burning building by a human chain of library employees and volunteers Thursday night, more than 35,000 have suffered water damage, some of it heavy. Most of those have already arrived at the center.

Restoration begins at 20 below zero

"It's been intense," said Manuela Reikov-Räuchle, the head of the restoration department at the preservation center, in an interview with DW-WORLD. "Sometimes, the books are delivered, sometimes we've been driving back and forth."

Wrapped in foil, many are still dripping wet when they're unpacked. The race against time -- and fungus -- begins immediately. After a quick cleaning with a brush, the books are deep frozen at minus 20 degrees to prevent microbacteria from taking over.

For small books, the process is over in 24 hours. Larger ones are frozen for up to three days. When they emerge from the freezer, they're put through a process that evaporates the ice immediately into gas. The same thing is done to dried fruit.

Knoche has yet to release a list of works currently undergoing restoration. The bookbinders say there is no way to estimate yet how many of the books will, in fact, be restored to their original form. Money is definitely a factor.

Prohibitive prices

Restoration costs 10 euros per kilogram (2.2 pounds) when the book is wet, according to the Center. Most of the small books weigh between 1.5 and 2 kg, and the amounts begin skyrocketing when the larger books are factored in. Including transportation and storage, the State Cultural Minister in Thuringia, where Weimar is located, said Tuesday the costs for each book would be between €500 and €1,000 ($600 and $1,200).

"There are several tons," said Reikov-Räuchle.

So far, the Federal Government has promised €4 million in emergency money, half of which was transferred on Monday, according to Museum officials.

An account set up for donations from the public has gotten a good reception and a series of benefit concerts are being planned.

"The resonance (in the public) has been inspiring," said Helmut Seemann.

Electrical short is to blame

Police said Tuesday that an electrical short in the upper story of the three-floor building was most likely

Brand in der Anna Amalia Bibliothek in Weimar

The fire devastated two floors and much of the roof

responsible for the blaze. The two-story 18th century Rococo Hall, the building's extravagant centerpiece, was completely gutted by flames but will eventually be restored, according to Seemann.


It could take months, even years to determine whether it will hold the same collection. Some good news came on Tuesday with the announcement that around 20,000 books with only minor water damage can be restored by the library itself. The rest will be handled by the Center, which is undertaking its biggest assignment since floods devastated several libraries along the Elbe in 2002. It has had to put other projects, like work for the US Library of Congress, on hold. Though the 2002 floods kept them busy, this assignment is especially notable for the Center.

"These are world cultural treasures," said Reikov-Räuchle. "You know what you have in your hands."

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