UK donates vacuum drying machines to help save books hit by floods

Anne Pringle and Pavel Dostal, Photo:CTK

An estimated half a million books and documents from archives and libraries were damaged around the Czech Republic during August's floods, and trying to save valuable works is proving to be an absolutely mammoth task. At a ceremony at the National Library on Tuesday, the British Ambassador, Anne Pringle, presented Czech Culture Minister Pavel Dostal with novel vacuum drying machines which will help in that task. Also present was Stuart Welch, the inventor of the ingenious machines; he told Ian Willoughby how they work.

Anne Pringle and Pavel Dostal, Photo:CTK
"It's by excluding oxygen within the packages, putting dry material with wet material and in the vacuum the process is speeded up, where the water or moisture from the wet object wants to transfer into the dry material and simply reach equilibrium. It's like putting a wet raincoat in your wardrobe - by the morning you'll find everything's a little bit damper, because the moisture molecules have moved and transferred."

This machine is about as big as a big box; what kind of volume of books or documents can you treat, or at what speed?

"If there's a production line set up of people and a system, then it could take anything from between five minutes and ten minutes overall per items packed. A lot depends on how well the absorbing material is organised, whether it's blotting paper or old newspapers."

The floods were only a month ago and you've come here very quickly - how was it all organised?

"I was on holiday in Italy when I heard about the floods. I knew Jiri Vnoucek from when he was a student in England, so I was particularly concerned that his books were getting damaged. I rang him on my mobile to see if he knew about this system. He then had a meeting with the British Council, and they said they wished to help, so he said ' I know what I want' and they said 'OK'."

Have you been to look at the archives in the libraries here?

"Not in their wet state, no. We'll wait to see the damage but I know that it's not a pretty sight. There's an awful lot of stuff to work on...it's going to be a brave task for those that have to do it. It's not just wet books but they're dirty and smelly. It's not a nice job."

And inventor Stuart Welch referred there to his friend Jiri Vnoucek, the head of conservation at the National Library. Like the rest of his team, Mr Vnoucek was looking forward to using the vacuum drying machines.

Vacuum drying machine, Photo:CTK
"We hope we will use them all the time. They should be heavy duty machines. They hardly will stop, I would say."

How many books and documents, roughly, do you have to treat?

"There are not so many books directly in the National Library, but there are the books of the other libraries. So we are in fact going to help other libraries to dry books."

They haven't wasted any time; the machines began drying books and documents on Wednesday, just a day after arriving in the Czech Republic.