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With care, they heal old and broken tomes

What kind of museum is this?

The first artifact displayed in the poorly lit room looked like a rock _ a hard, speckly gray-colored lump with both rough and smooth edges.

Next to it, under a dusty glass case, was an object resembling modern sculpture, perhaps a wave design in shades of blue and beige. Another step away was something like an old jewelry box.

Not even close. All three items were books, which respectively, heat, water and termites had destroyed beyond recognition.

Dubbed "our museum of horrors" by the staff, this small, public Roman museum, part of the Italian government's Central Institute for Book Pathology, displays ruined books and ancient manuscripts as a way of illustrating the importance of book restoration and conservation.

Concerned that other texts don't meet similar fates, the institute, with support from the European Union, recently created the first book restoration and conservation school open to students from all the Union's member countries. Restoration specialists, sharing the institute's concern, have come from all over the world to the Spoleto, Italy, campus with only a few weeks' notice to teach the school's first class of 15 students.

The two-year, 40-hour-a-week program finished last summer. The students soon will leave for libraries and museums around the world for a year of practical training, then return to receive diplomas.

They will go, not only knowing about books, but also knowing that many libraries don't have budgets for restoration and that libraries that do often have restorers who are less than open to new ideas.

But the students are well-armed. For the past two years, they have worked in English, Italian and Latin and learned everything from calligraphy and parchment-making to Latin paleography and chemistry. They finished the program not only able to restore books but also able to make them, using ancient and modern techniques. Even the buildings that provide homes for books were carefully studied.

Thomas Albro, director of the Library of Congress' Rare Book Department in Washington, D.C., was one of several restoration specialists who taught at the European School for the Conservation of Books and Library Materials in Spoleto.

"It's a very comprehensive program," he said. "They had teachers from all over the world. The students were of a very high caliber and the facilities are very good, considering it just started from scratch. (In a few years) this could be one of the best restoration schools in the world."

But why hide a would-be world-famous restoration program in the quiet Umbrian hills of central Italy?

It's not that surprising. Italy has always played a fundamental role in the history of both books and libraries. Although books can be traced back almost 5,000 years to the Egyptian world, in their modern form books were really the work of classical Greece and Rome. Creation of the first public library in Rome is attributed to Emperor Julius Caesar (106-43 B.C.).

With the decline of Rome after the fifth century, book production and distribution was limited largely to religious centers of learning. During these centuries, manuscript books existing in Europe numbered in the thousands. However, the invention of the printing press in 1450 resulted in a virtual explosion of books. By 1500, Europe was reading more than 9-million books, many of which came from Italy.

Italian monasteries provided many of the early modern libraries, followed by the emergence of universities and soon after, private collections.

Today, however, in Italy and the rest of the world, there are justified fears that a good part of this literary heritage is being lost to time. The little museum in Rome shows it, as well as something that many consider even scarier _ many precious tomes selected for restoration are ruined by the restorers themselves, who have not been adequately trained.

According to Maria Lilli Di Franco, one of the school's co-founders and director of the Book Pathology Institute, many book restoration programs offered today "teach you to destroy rather than restore."

As an example, Di Franco referred to a recent study of medieval books the institute completed. She said hundreds of restored volumes that had been "mended" were no longer usable, often with pages glued together or printing ruined by restorative chemicals. In many cases, the original materials that made up the book were thrown away during restoration before being cataloged.

"My rule," Di Franco said, "is do the least possible to . . . the book. And always, there needs to be documentation, photos and analyses before restoring. It's the biggest problem in Italy now. We're missing well-trained professionals."

Di Franco said she hopes the Spoleto program will help provide more professional book restorers, who in turn, can share their knowledge in libraries and museums around the world.

Marinita Stiglitz, 24, already has spent one summer restoring books in an Italian library. She said now that she has finished the Spoleto restoration program, she will spend a year working in a Palermo, Sicily, library and in a San Francisco museum.

"We saw that many people today who restore are often not sensitive enough to restoring methods. In many cases, we find ourselves in front of libraries in unimaginable states. Books that seem to be restored by children."