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UF archivist preserves priceless manuscripts of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and others

GAINESVILLE

The cockroaches scuttle out during the wee hours mad with hunger. They creep along the shelves, antennae waving, until they find a rare book as juicy as a porterhouse or, better yet, a one-of-a-kind manuscript as delectable as key lime pie. Mandibles dripping, the cockroach army marches ever closer . . .

Oh, the nightmares of John Freund. Other sleep-disturbing dreams involve book-eating beetles, exploding water pipes, mildew, fire, acidy paper and spaghetti sauce sprinkled across the title page of a first-edition Mark Twain.

It isn't easy being the conservator for the University of Florida's massive library system — home to 4 million books and dozens of important manuscripts. In Florida's book-unfriendly environment, Freund is probably the best friend a book, or something made from paper, ever had.

He spends hours patrolling shelves in nine campus libraries to identify the sickest books. If they're broke he fixes them, using ancient and modern techniques in a kind of book hospital, deep within the main campus library, that is something like a monastery. There is no moat, but he locks the door to discourage visitors.

He is a busy man. Five minutes spent socializing with the curious is five minutes he could better spend repairing the leather cover on Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad (1869) or protecting in plastic architect Frank Lloyd Wright's 1954 blueprint for the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house that was never built. He says he is a year behind in his work, perhaps more.

In his mind, of course, he hears the drip, drip, drip of a leaky water pipe on a 16th century volume or crunching mandibles on the shelf that contains Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' priceless manuscripts.

He was probably the only person in the library recently to welcome the disturbing sight of a leggy and prehistoric beast crouched ominously in a ceiling corner — a saucer-sized huntsman spider.

"They eat roaches," he explained. He would like to think his arachnid friend is still lurking in his library, doing God's work.

It's not his library, of course. But he has worked there a quarter of a century, quietly and often alone, and sometimes feels that in some small way the library is his home. He is 62 now, slender, quiet, dresses in black, wears artsy glasses, shaves his head. He does not play the radio to pass time or steal a minute to read what he is repairing. He focuses on what Florida's harsh environment — or perhaps a Floridian — has wrought on the poor written word.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, for example. She arrived in North Central Florida to write gothic romances in 1928. Instead, the Yankee city girl fell in love with Florida, especially the native rural people who eked out a living among the pines and the palmettos near Ocala. She wrote a wonderful memoir, Cross Creek, but her masterpiece was a novel, The Yearling.

Her old Cracker house, hidden in an orange grove, initially lacked electricity and indoor plumbing, but had no shortage of paper-destroying humidity, roaches and mice. A former newspaper reporter, Rawlings pounded out stories on a manual typewriter so violently the hammers sometimes punched holes through the inexpensive pulp paper she favored.

After her death in 1953, UF acquired her life's work. For decades it rested, damaged and brittle, in boxes. Freund joined the library in 1987. Protecting and restoring the manuscripts, letters and notes — 4,100 items in all — became his mission.

He has allergies to dust, mold and mildew. He sneezes, his eyes water.

He pulled on a mask and went to work. He washed pages to remove mildew. Then he dried the pages in a vacuum machine that sucked out the moisture. When pages curled he flattened them out under a 19th century manual press. Afterward he treated the flattened pages with a solution to preserve the paper. Finally, using a machine called an ultrasonic encapsulator, he sealed each page inside a see-through polyester envelope.

The Zora Neale Hurston manuscripts broke his heart.

Raised in Florida, the prolific African-American author wrote many of her finest stories and novels, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, on fragile paper she stored carelessly.

Hurston is often considered a literary genius today, but she died in poverty in Fort Pierce in 1960. Her body was hardly cold when nursing home employees tossed her belongings — including books and manuscripts — onto a bonfire. A friend arrived, grabbed a garden hose and extinguished the flames.

Hurston's work came to the library. Freund and others repaired the water stains, though many pages still resemble meat seared on a barbecue grill. Scholars who study the plastic-covered pages get an insight into Hurston's creativity and the harshness of her last years.

When Freund finishes his work, he turns materials over to another librarian, Flo Turcotte, who is 53. Her job is making the library's prizes available to the public.

Her domain is a 5,000-square-foot windowless room that is more like a giant vault. Entering requires passing through a series of locked doors monitored by cameras. Inside, the temperature is kept at a paper-friendly 60 degrees and 30 percent humidity. Should temperatures rise for any reason, alarms go off at security desks and in Turcotte's bedroom. The collection — more than 100,000 rare books and manuscripts — is valued beyond any price and is considered uninsurable.

"It's up to us to keep it safe," she says.

Only a few librarians are allowed inside. A visitor who wishes to see a one-of-a-kind volume must go to the high-security "Research Room" on the second floor, wait to be buzzed through a bolted door and listen carefully to the instructions. No coats, briefcases or boxes allowed. No food or drink. Pencils only. A librarian places the prized material on a table and lurks nearby. Security cameras all the while record the action.

Turcotte, like Rawlings, moved to Florida from Washington, D.C. Like Rawlings, Turcotte fell in love with her new home state: the birds, the flowers, the culture, the literary possibilities. Photos of Rawlings and Hurston hang from her office walls next to a bumper sticker that warns "Archivists Make It Last Longer."

Turcotte teaches a course about Hurston. She also is president of the national Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society and jokes that "one of my skills is my ability to read Mrs. Rawlings' bad handwriting."

Modern writers usually self-edit, rewriting as they work on computer. Their often sterile manuscripts leave scholars little to study. Rawlings edited her work by pencil, often scrawling intriguing notes in the margins.

She originally called her greatest novel The Flutter-Mill after a water toy built by the youthful character, Jody Baxter. Rawlings thought better of it, scratched out the title and penciled in The Yearling, which captured the essence of her story about a 19th century Florida boy and his ill-fated pet deer.

"A column of smoke rose from the cabin chimney," was her typewritten opening. Later, in pencil, she added the words "thin and straight" to describe the smoke more vividly. As she wrote, the cigarette between her lips dripped burning ashes on the manuscript. Other pages are decorated by rings from her coffee cup and whiskey glass.

"When you look at her manuscripts you can see the hard work," Turcotte tells scholars. "You can see her struggles and you can see when her writing is flowing."

Rawlings kept everything, even notes scrawled on envelopes and napkins about her work in progress, upcoming parties, recipes and wages she intended to pay orange grove workers. She kept correspondence from her editor Maxwell Perkins and from peers who included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Margaret Mitchell and Robert Frost. She kept fan letters from soldiers who carried special editions of her books into World War II battles. Rawlings, who battled depression and alcoholism, was married twice. She kept love letters, some happy, some heartbreaking.

A flesh-and-blood artist, tormented, Rawlings lives on in the manuscripts restored by Freund.

A pipe burst in 1995. Water poured into the library. Sure enough, one of the rarest volumes in the UF collection, Novus Orbis Regionum, an atlas of the world as Latin scholars knew it in 1555, was apparently ruined.

Worth $225,000. A catastrophe.

Freund took apart the enormous book page by page, fixing water damage as he went along, drying each page, then flattening it in the press. During the next four months he sewed the volume back together. Finally, he repaired the warped cover. "It was the most extensive job I ever had to do," he told people.

He grew up in Minnesota, fell in love with the written word and studied journalism. No jobs. He moved to California and worked for a food corporation. Boring. On a lark he took a San Francisco State college course to learn the basics of book preservation. In Florida, Rawlings beckoned.

He likes reading Rawlings novels and visiting the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site at Cross Creek. He likes to stand on her porch where she wrote her stories. He can almost see her sitting at her typewriter and working on The Yearling. "Knowing I played a small part in preserving this material for the future,'' he tells people, "is the most rewarding part of my job.''

He likes to kayak North Florida's rivers. He likes to hike North Florida's forests with his wife. He sometimes volunteers at the Museum of Natural History's paleontology wing and once dug up mysterious bones new to science. Professional paleontologists named the 18 million-year-old weasel after him. Zodiolestes freundi.

He collects old books, old maps, old prints. When he visits friends, he always looks at their books. Are they taking proper care of them? Any sign of cockroach damage? Perhaps a friend's library needs a hungry huntsman spider.

Freund allows no insect-attracting food, eating or drinking in his library work room. On a recent afternoon, after lunch at the cafeteria, he smooths an architect's drawing discovered in a college basement. More than a century old, the blueprint is for Henry Flagler's glamorous hotel in St. Augustine. Once the blueprint is protected, architects and historians will be able to handle it.

Some vintage material arrives at the library almost ready for public display. Other stuff shows up looking like props from an Edgar Allan Poe movie. Freund dons mask and gloves and begins investigating the old, decrepit boxes.

A memory from 2010.

Thirty, 40, 50 heaping boxes of material gathered over more than a half century by the Tallahassee chapter of Florida League of Women voters are brought to him, boxes containing documents that might be important one day to historians trying to better understand the workings of state government.

The boxes have been stored for decades in a damp building that eventually was condemned.

Freund anxiously opens the first box.

Waving pincers, a scorpion crawls out into the light. Hopping out next is a black widow spider. They apparently have been eating the roaches eating the valuable papers inside the boxes.

Freund knows Florida. It's a nasty place for books. But he knows what to do.

He stacks the bug-infested boxes in the big blast freezer in the back of the room. Switches it on. Freezes everything to 50 degrees below zero. Lets everything thaw. Blasts it again. Lets it thaw. For good measure he blasts the boxes once more, until all the roaches and spiders and scorpions and their eggs are history.

Then he starts repairing those old papers. They might be important. Somebody might want to study them one day.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8727.

UF archivist preserves priceless manuscripts of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and others 02/03/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 3, 2012 4:32pm]

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