WHO KILLED NAPOLEON?
History is chock-a-block full of mystery! ...and is
wedged open, filled with things and events we see but
rarely comprehend upon their revelation, revealing
themselves in suspense. In contemporary murder mysteries,
murders are committed, undetected, except for a few
tell-tale signs. The killer is sought out like a needle
at the end of a loose thread while we, from our safe
distance, are always aware that the killer, as the needle,
may surface to stab its steely digit into the detective's
heart. The search is as much to apprehend the killer as
it is to prevent other deaths.
We now know that murder mysteries, themselves, are the
subjects of their own cloak-and-dagger scenes though, more
like Edward Scissorhands, born with the defect, shall we
say, in hand. We know that the paper on which they are
printed is dying the slow death of acid, murdered, as it
where, by the pulp and paper industry. We know that
colors lack stability in light and that film projection,
like Lao Tzu on the back of his Taoist cow, will
eventually wipe the image from this world. We know...
...but, what can be done to apprehend the killer?
Conservation, the Sherlock Holmes of this essay, is
equipped with chemicals to detect and arrest the "killer"
-- in fact, any number of different killers: chemicals for
acid in paper; chemicals for spot removal; chemicals for
mold and mildew inhibition; chemicals for the
stabilization of filmed images; etc. Just as in the
murder mysteries, whatever the stripe, the killer is
So what happens when the good cop turns bad -or when
the punishment is more deadly than the crime? Like the
murder which proceeded it, the death which accompanies the
bad cop is committed undetected. In conservation, the
residual effects of chemicals used today may be found to
be harmful later. What if, for example, the
micro-crystalline deposits of OPP, the chemical used to
treat mold infected books, later causes abrasion which
eventually ruins the bookcloth? In this case, the emperor
gets new clothing; there is little chance that the book
will suffer loss of life. But, what happens when
chemicals off-gas in the stacks.
Off-gassing is when residual chemicals left behind
after treating the book give off gasses. In the case of
one or two treatments which off-gas, the effect is
negligible; the air conditioning system wilr carry
offending gasses out of the building. In the case of
mass-treatments, the problem can threaten human life. To
illustrate just how problematic this can be let's ask,
'Who killed Napoleon?"
Imagine. It's 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo, on
the Isle of St. Helena to which Napoleon and his wife have
just been exiled. Like Nancy Reagan in the White House,
the first thing the couple decide to do is redecorate
their new home. They choose new wallpaper. Its color is
a shade of green, popular at the time: Scheele's green.
The color, they believe, will cheer up the many damp days
and stormy nights on the island. Six years later, 1821,
Napoleon dies. One hundred and sixty one years later,
1982, scientists discover that Napoleon was killed by his
wallpaper. Scheele's green (i.e., copper arsenite)
vaporized in the damp air to form arsenic trimethyl which
slowly poisoned Napoleon to his death. (Cf, "Napoleon's
Death." European Spectroscopy News. 45 (1982). p.7.)
More recently an art gallery in New York had to be
closed because chemicals in a particular paint used on a
single work were vaporizing in the city's humid summer
air. Gallery staff complained of headaches and nausea.
If such simple, singular things might cause illness, what
might mass-treatments do?
In libraries, the only chemically treated things we
have in massive quantities are pyroxylin treated
bookcloth, poly(vinyl-acetate) glue, and various
deacidified materials. Because we have been using the
bookcloth and glue in libraries for tens of years, we are
reasonably certain that they bear no ill effects. The
deacidification chemicals which we use at the University
of Florida are used sparingly (because their use is labor
intensive) and are more hazardous at the time of use than
later as a result of residuals.
Residuals of other deacidification chemicals may be
harmful however. Consider the Cleveland Public Library,
one of the first libraries in the nation to mass deacidify
its collections. The Library was assured that residuals,
designed to counter any future incursion of acids, would
not produce harmful off-gasses. Within the first year of
the project, as complete stack levels were deacidified,
the stacks began to fill with toxic off-gasses.
To date few mass deacidification chemicals have been
tested for toxicity of off-gassing residuals. Many may be
harmless. One family of chemicals used in the Wei T'o
process at the National Library of Canada has been found
not to produce toxic off-gasses. Unfortunately, the
process is limited to a few hundred volumes per week and
is not widely available. Other chemicals used in other
processes may or may not be toxic. Some of these
processes hold the promise of treating thousands of
volumes per week. We just do not know if they too would