How solar power could help save world heritage

Centuries-old papers and books often have no protection from the heat and humidity of southwest India. A Hamilton-based librarian who witnessed their condition wants to do something about it.

A trip to India inspired a Hamilton team to come up with a prototype for a machine to save world heritage

Colin Clarke, director of the Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents at the University of Toronto, and engineers Harrison King-McBain and Michael Cino are working on a prototype to help protect rare books and papers in remote hot and humid environments. (Maude Leger)

It was sweaty and sticky when a group of librarians and archivists went to Kerala in humid southwest India last fall. 

And if the librarians were feeling the heat, just imagine the impact on centuries-old delicate papers. 

One of them, Hamilton-based Colin Clarke, didn't have to imagine.

Pages from a book that may date back a couple of centuries, kept in storage in a room without climate control. (Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents)
He saw for himself the crumbling of Syriac Christian inscriptions and manuscripts, writings in books and on palm leaves, kept in a monastery.

Clarke is in his element in a race against time. He was invited to go on the trip as the director of the Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents, a University of Toronto-hosted centre that works to preserve inscriptions of centuries-old artifacts and documents currently threatened or already destroyed by ISIS's violent campaign across much of Iraq and Syria.

When Clarke got home, he got an idea. 

He called up a couple of friends, and pitched it to them: what if we made a solar-powered dehumidifier? 

Now, Clarke and engineers Harrison King-McBain and Michael Cino, who graduated with engineering degrees from McMaster University, are working on a prototype. They were expecting the solar panels to come in the mail on Friday and to go shopping this weekend for the other pieces needed for a prototype.

'The smell of the decaying books'

At a remote monastery on the trip, Clarke went to see the room where palm leaves and manuscripts dating back centuries are kept. 

As his hosts took him upstairs, a friend turned back. 

"The smell of the decaying books as we ascended the staircase" proved too much for her, Clarke said. The smell "assaulted" them as they neared.

Inside the room, Clarke learned there were no climate or storage solutions for the historic archives.

Colin Clarke wants to see libraries like this one in a church in southwest India have access to climate control for their rare papers and books. (Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents)
He was shown palm leaves filled with handwriting. The leaves were crumbling. The letters were flaking off.

And this was the main diocese library, where texts from other churches and libraries were being sent. Many of the books and papers are written in Syriac, an international language that was once used throughout much of the eastern world, being transported along the Silk Road. The dialect is related to Aramaic, the language Jesus reportedly spoke.

Outside, the abbot found Clarke. 

"Even if you gave us the machinery, we wouldn't have the money to power it," he said.

Not to mention the unreliability of electricity, which Clarke also witnessed firsthand when the lights went out in one of the monastery services he attended.

Enter the engineers

While in India, Colin Clarke saw stacks of crumbling manuscripts written on palm leaves, mainly local accounts and records written in Malayalam, a local language. (Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents)
The solution they're working on is a "pretty simple system," King-McBain said. 

The plan is to build something a bit like a small freezer or mini-fridge using mainstream components. Librarians like the ones Clarke met would place their important documents in the container, which would control the climate and humidity for the contents.

That's a preferable option to rigging up a dehumidifier for a whole room or building, King-McBain said, because the walls or structures themselves may not be properly insulated.

"You're only going to try to control the humidity of where the documents are," he said.

King-McBain said he doesn't practice a religion, but the appeal is strong of playing a part to preserve world heritage.

'Rare books and manuscripts'

There are a few questions to be worked out as the team makes its prototype and hopes to unveil it later this month.

Who will pay to produce the units? Should the unit be calibrated for preserving paper manuscripts written in Syriac, as well as the palm-leaf documents often written in the local language?

What if the people who receive the dehumidifier devise a way to divert the electricity to power something else?

"We don't really have much control over that, do we?" Clarke said. "I gave it to you as a champagne glass and you're using it as a paperweight — stop."

But Clarke said he expects the overwhelming response from librarians and archivists to be relief. They lack the means to properly care for their treasures, he said.

"These rare books and manuscripts are the pride of monastic and church collections," he said. "I've heard many priest and monks boast of what their library collections contain."

Clarke plans to bring the prototype with him when he returns to India later this year.


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