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Sick Books

Sorry, no improper revelations, not even a discussion of why you see _Mein Kampf_ everywhere in Indian bookstores. Rather, this has to do with my work here cataloguing collections of Sanskrit manuscripts on mathematics and astronomy. At present it's led me to a Jain institute here in Jaipur that has not only a very interesting manuscript library, but also a new "Pandulipi Samrakshan Kendra", or Manuscript Conservation Center. You see, the problem with Sanskrit manuscripts is that they're not making them anymore. A few scribes may still turn out fancy handmade versions of the Ramayana and other well-known works as expensive curios or devotional materials, but the millennia-long tradition of hand-writing new copies of your old copies of copies of copies of great-great-great...great-grand-copies of the original texts has pretty much been killed by the advent of the printing press.

There are still millions of Sanskrit manuscripts in India, in government archives and libraries, other institutions, and private collections, so we're not going to run out of them right this minute. Unfortunately, in India there are also termites, silverfish, bookworms, cockroaches, rats, mice, fungus, atmospheric acids, a tropical/subtropical climate with temperature and humidity extremes, and economic necessities, so we're surely going to run out of manuscripts pretty soon if we don't do something about it. Old handmade papers and inks are surprisingly robust, but they don't hold up more than a century or two without ongoing care, and the manuscripts made with commercially produced materials from the past couple centuries are decaying even faster. Few people even in India know the proper techniques for conserving, repairing, and storing Indian manuscripts to minimize the decay, and of course outside of India (where a surprising number of Indian manuscripts have wound up), the necessary knowledge is even scarcer.

Fortunately, places like the Institute's Manuscript Conservation Center are to some extent holding back the tide of book death by conserving manuscripts from their own collections and those of other owners. And even better, from my point of view, they're generously allowing me and one of the American students here to take a conservation training course with the Center's staff. So in the mornings I read and catalogue manuscripts, and in the afternoons I go across the courtyard and learn how to prolong manuscripts' lives so other people can read them in years to come.

The introductory part, when you find out what really happens to most manuscripts and what the different things are that they can suffer from, is pretty appalling: photos of heaps of pages lying exposed on floors, "Before" pictures of the pre-conservation condition of rescued books, etc. (Fungus, termites, and acids in the air are apparently the deadliest enemies; termites in particular just make pages, volumes, shelves of books vanish into nothingness. Yikes!) But learning how much can actually be done to save and restore the manuscripts, and how practically feasible most of it is to do, is very encouraging. Indian conservators seem to have been especially ingenious in figuring out conservation strategies that don't start out by assuming that everybody's got a state-of-the-art climate-controlled facility and access to expensive materials. It's really often possible to save a book's life with nothing more than a little common-sense training and some basic equipment that you can mostly pick up at a drugstore.

You certainly see the books with new eyes, too, especially coming in as a researcher who's always treated manuscripts as precious rarities that you need to handle as delicately (and as little) as possible. It's tough love over on the conservation side, I'll tell you! We're practicing our cleaning and repair techniques on some manuscripts that I've got temporary custody of, and you should see me nonchalantly dunking those three-hundred-year-old pages into the lime-water cleaning/deacidifying solution and swishing them around with the brush. (For a real laugh, you should see my nonchalance vanish when the ink starts to run---*despite* having been successfully tested for non-solubility beforehand---and I frantically snatch the paper out of the water and try to stop the bleeding.)

The most fun part of the work, I'd have to say, is repairing; that's when you get a pot of homemade starch paste (better for the paper than chemical glues) and scraps of handmade paper (longer sturdier fibers than commercial papers) and put Humpty Dumpty together again. It's remarkable how well old paper generally accepts a "graft" of new paper, if it's properly applied. But I shudder to think how I used to believe I was "fixing" torn or loose pages of my books by putting cellophane tape on them! I now know that's about the worst thing you can do to a piece of paper, and I swear I'll never do it again.

—— Kim Plofker
2004-04-27 11:04:52

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
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