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History's heroes

Kristina Reymann, Annika Zeitler / lbhMarch 4, 2014

Thousands of books, documents and historical treaties were damaged in the collapse of the Historical Archive of Cologne. Five years later, restoration continues. What does it take to bring these treasures back to life?

Close-up of the pages of a book, retored after the Historical Arvchive of Cologne collapsed five years ago Copyright: Historical Archive of Cologne
Image: Kölner Stadtarchiv

"You approach the restoration of handwriting with a sense of reverence," says Nadine Thiel, head conservator at the Historical Archives in Cologne. Aside from the experts like Thiel, nobody gets close to these precious archives. She is one of 200 conservators and assistants working to restore the artifacts damaged in the collapse of the Historical Archive in Cologne five years ago.

About 95 percent of the total stock was rescued, but the collection - parts of which are more than 1,000 years old - is far from restored. It's a time-consuming task. First, conservators need to remove the dirt and mold, smooth the rips, replace book covers and flatten the pages. "It's a considerable responsibility," says Thiel. Up to now, her team has been able to restore about 1,500 objects. It's just a fraction of what lies ahead.

Picture of a building engulfed in flames - Flames engulfed the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar in 2004, destroying hundreds of thousands of artifacts Photo: Michael Paech dpa
Flames engulfed the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar in 2004, destroying hundreds of thousands of artifactsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Weimar's loss

"I am able to open a window onto the past," says restorer Mathias Hageböck. He's a member of the team dealing with the consequences of the 2004 fire at the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar. When he holds a book in his hand that once belonged to Goethe, he asks himself how the poet might have used the book. He reflects on the circumstances and the era of its creation. Sometimes restorers find personal items in the books, like dried flowers or letters. The core collection at Weimar centers around German literature from 1750 - 1850, but it contains volumes ranging from the ninth to the 21st century.

In September 2004, a fire broke out at the library, damaging or destroying tens of thousands of books. Hageböck estimates that about 50,000 books went up in flames. However, more than 25,000 volumes, called "ash books" because of the fire damage they sustained, were recovered. Experts developed a unique restoration technique, which has since been exported to Switzerland, where books from the library are still being restored. In the coming year, about 37,000 books with water and heat damage may be restored completely, Hageböck says.

Fashionable career

Germany is home to about 500 to 1,000 paper conservators, estimates Jana Moczarski of the Professional Association of Restorers in Germany. New talent is trained in one of 12 restoration programs at universities across Germany.

"Restoration has become a fashionable career," says Moczarski. Nevertheless, beginners often have misconceptions about their profession. "They put creativity at the forefront and are interested in art, but it's not an artistically creative career." However, creativity certainly doesn't hurt. "I need to find creative ways to ensure the preservation of the original objects," she explains.

An accident during the construction of a new subway line caused the collapse of the archive, its rubble pictured above Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Martin Meissner
An accident during the construction of a new subway line caused the collapse of the Cologne archiveImage: AP

The greatest challenge for restorers, according to both Moczarski and Hageböck, is to develop new strategies for mass restoration. Today, it's no longer about handling individual objects, but rather large collections of archive and library material. "It's a massive logistical task," says Hageböck. "The financial aspect needs to be considered, while also ensuring that the work is of a high quality."

International collaboration

The European Research Centre for Book and Paper Conservation has set a goal of maintaining cultural treasures while advancing research at a European level, says Patricia Engels, director of the Austrian-based institute. She sees it as her job to find solutions to the problems institutions all over Europe face - mildew, acidic paper, deterioration, vegetable-tanned leather, and inks that eat through the paper. Engels is also calling for more work to be done in raising awareness. She says one must continually emphasize the importance of allocating financial resources for the preservation of our cultural heritage.

When it comes to restoration work, it's not unusual for the experts to criss-cross national borders in search of additional assistance and expertise. Archives and libraries cooperate with universities and restoration workshops, both nationally and internationally. Books from the Duchess Anna Amalia Library are being restored in Switzerland, Estonia, Hungary and Spain. An account book from the Cologne archive is currently being restored in the Hague in the Netherlands.

Close up of burnt pages from an 'ash book.' A new restoration method was developed for the 'ash books' from the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar Photo: Martin Schutt/dpa
A new restoration method was developed for the 'ash books' from the Anna Amalia Library in WeimarImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"There is great willingness among experts to help each other," says Nadine Thiel from Cologne. Nevertheless, the work is very time-consuming. Mathias Hageböck estimates that it will be another 10 years before all the Weimar books are restored. In Cologne, the work could take another 30 years. Even the reopening of the new archive could drag on for quite some time. In the meantime, all the restored documents are immediately digitized and uploaded to an extensive online portal, which is already accessible in German.