14 March, 2022

From Gammexane to Nitrogen Chamber

Establishing a paper conservation laboratory at Roja Muthiah Research Library, Chennai

Roja Muthiah Chettiar was a sign board artist and eclectic bibliophile, who, through the latter half of the 20th century, collected more than 100,000 print materials related to Tamil culture in his modest house near Chennai. He would religiously sprinkle the many shelves and leaves of his collection with Gammexane powder in an attempt to stave off insects. Preservation of his collection – that ranged from the loftiest of Tamil literature to popular culture items such as film cards and magazines – was the foremost agenda of his life. Gammexane powder was a common insecticide and pesticide used liberally in libraries (and farms) in the 20th century; however it is a harmful chemical that causes irreparable damage to the human body when inhaled.

Almost three decades after Roja Muthiah passed away in the early 1990s, his collection now sits along with 300,000 other unique Tamil imprints, in the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) in Chennai. Gammexane is never used here. Instead, the books are disinfected using a Nitrogen Chamber, a process which is perfectly harmless to humans. This piece of equipment, along with the establishment of a full-fledged paper conservation lab, was supported by Tata Trusts through a two-year grant to RMRL from 2015-17.

With a library that holds more than 400,000 unique Tamil imprints, RMRL is a rich resource for Tamil scholars covering the areas of humanities, social sciences and sciences. While the library had earlier maintained a small conservation unit to undertake emergency repairs of books and papers, it’s vast compilation – with the oldest book dating to the late 1700s – required a proper paper conservation lab with trained conservators to manage the care of the collection.

The two-year project faced several challenges – such as the procurement of equipment and materials from countries like US, Japan and Portugal, the recruitment and training of paper conservators, selection of rare books to conserve, as well as force majeure events like the Chennai floods of 2015. However, the project achieved its outcomes.

By the end of the grant period, the team comprising of four conservation assistants, an archivist and a programme manager, had established a paper conservation lab on the library premises, conducted two trainings for libraries and archives around India, documented and produced a conservation manual on paper conservation processes, and conserved 70,000 pages of rare literature. The oldest book conserved in this project was the religious text titled ’Thiruporur Sannidhimurai’, published in 1839.The latest print material dated to the 1960s, and the highest number of conserved print material belonged to the period 1900-1909.

It's been five years since our programme ended, yet RMRL continues to work towards preservation and conservation of not only their collection also external collections such as material from the Women’s Christian College; Music Academy, Chennai; and paper records of private individuals. Says, G Sundar, Director and Trustee, RMRL, “With the launch of the ‘Adopt a Book’ programme, a number of individuals and some corporates have contributed. This has allowed RMRL to engage more conservators for undertaking conservation of print material. We are happy to be able to preserve this material for posterity.”

Support to RMRL is in line with the Tata Trusts’ Arts and Culture portfolio’s conservation strategy that seeks to help build infrastructure and support training opportunities in art conservation. The Trusts have since designed and developed the Art Conservation Initiative that is working in partnership with five institutes across India to help lay a framework for art conservation by establishing art conservation centres, conducting intensive training courses in conservation of specific materials, and assessing collections of smaller institutes through field surveys.