Volunteers work to restore damaged books

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 19, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Bending over their work, the women carefully brushed off the charred black veneer giving way to, if not perfect, still-usable covers and pages.

At the Historic Natchez Foundation, National Park Service interns and volunteers are working this week and next week to rehabilitate books burned in the fire at destroyed much of the antebellum house Arlington in September.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 345 of the 2,000 or so books had been rehabbed by workers using the simplest of tools &045; gum erasers, paintbrushes and dry cleaning sponges &045; and wearing face masks.

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To learn how to rehab the volumes, workers got a crash course in the art from book and paper conservator Renee de Ville of New Orleans, who helped estimate the books’ condition immediately after the fire.

&uot;This is as low-tech as it gets,&uot; said volunteer Tricia Whisenant, wife of Natchez National Historical Park Superintendent Keith Whisenant, laughing as she went to get another book.

Perhaps that’s appropriate, considering that the books hail from a decidedly low-tech time. One volunteer even found a volume from 1635.

Each volunteer had her favorite volume, from period novels to Civil War-era church hymnals.

&uot;Look at this &045; one called ‘Letters Writ By a Turkish Spy,’&uot; said volunteer Leslie Bruning, cradling the 19th-century book in her hand.

But, alas &045; neither interns nor volunteers will be allowed to keep any of the volumes.

Instead, they will be donated by the Historic Natchez Foundation to public archives such as those at the antebellum house Melrose and the William Johnson House, which is now being renovated.

Others will be sent to private families with an interest in the books &045; such as the Vaughans, who own Arlington, said Melrose Curator Kathleen Jenkins.

Others have already been sent to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which will rehab those books itself.