The Gallantry of a Mud Angel

This post comes from Alaina McNeal, the Public Services Outreach intern at the Rakow Research Library.

On the night of November 4, 1966, water poured through the streets of Florence, Italy. Buildings collapsed from the bottom up, compressed air in basements caused the ceilings to buckle, and the first floors of buildings collapsed downward. The surge of water brought mud and oil from destroyed storage tanks, covering the city in a slippery mixture. Amidst all the damage that resulted from the flood were more than two million books and archival collections.

Photo of two "Mud Angels" standing next to heavilg damaged books

Two Mud Angels and damaged papers by Nicholas Swietlan. Swietlan Nicholas Kraczyna: Painter/Printmaker.

Relief workers began to arrive from around the world to aid in repairing the damage. Carolyn Price Horton, an American conservator, was among them. The conservation team from the United States was unprepared for the damage. They arrived on November 16 – nearly two weeks after the flooding – to find the city with no heat, running water, or electricity. The streets were still in ruin, mud and oil lines smeared on the buildings, residents waiting in long lines for drinking water, and the streets littered with books and bags and shop merchandise. Some books had been submerged for days: one collection was underwater for at least eight days before water could be pumped out of the room. Other books were so soaked that the shelving had to be cut away to free the collection.

The volunteers who arrived to dig the city out from under layer upon layer of mud were called “Mud Angels.” Soldiers and volunteers wore boots as high as possible and red rubber gloves to protect themselves from the polluted mud. It took thousands of volunteers weeks of constant work to interleave the damaged books with mimeograph paper. Mold grew on the tomes because of the warm temperatures and stains caused by polluted water had to be blotted out with weak bleach mixtures. Some pages were so damaged and soaked that the wood-pulp pages began to feel like a thick jelly.

Carolyn Price Horton was an essential part of the Mud Angel army, providing her expertise in book conversation. She spent several years assisting in saving the city’s collection of books. Horton and the team of American conservators were tasked with helping the smaller libraries to recover. She served as consultant for 15 libraries in Florence and one in Venice, and convinced the workers to store books in unheated, well-ventilated rooms to best ensure their survival. Even today, there are books damaged by the 1966 flood that have not yet been conserved.

Carolyn Horton separates pages from a flooded book

Carolyn Horton separates pages from a flooded book. Photo by Richard Howard, Croton Falls, N.Y.: R. Howard, 1972. CMGL 125736.

Because of Horton’s extensive work on the Florence collection conservation project, she was at the forefront of book conservation. Multiple reports were released on her experiences, including Saving the Libraries of Florence, documenting the lengthy process of saving Florence’s books, and Cleaning and Preserving Bindings and Related Materials, about the proper care and cleaning of books and other documents. Previously, the information was a well-kept secret, guarded by professionals who rarely shared what they learned with others.

The research was noticed by The Corning Museum of Glass after hearing Horton speak of her experiences. It was a timely event, as three months later the infamous Flood of 1972 hit Corning, N.Y. The Museum’s collections of books and objects were submerged. Horton’s knowledge was used in response to the damage, allowing staff at the Museum to recover rare books and materials by using freezing techniques to ensure the survival of the collection.

Horton’s annotations in the back of Comoediae Novem

Horton’s annotations in the back of
Comoediae Novem (1498). CMGL 96927.

Carolyn Horton was subsequently hired to restore 600 rare books from the Museum’s collection. These hundreds of volumes have careful notations and documentation of conservation within their pages, evidence of her extensive work. For example, the Library’s water-soaked copy of Comoediae Novem was frozen immediately after the flood and defrosted in February 1973 for treatment by Horton. The book had extensive treatment done, including washing of debris, de-acidification to prevent decay of the paper, and rebinding the pages in leather. Thanks to Horton’s meticulous work, it is hard to tell that the book underwent such extensive repairs. Open any of the Rakow Research Library’s rare books, and there’s a chance you’ll find a similar annotation from Horton in the back.

The Rakow Research Library is open to the public 9 am to 5 pm every day. We encourage everyone to explore our collections in person or online. If you have questions or need help with your research, please use our Ask a Glass Question service.

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