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“Facts and Inferences”—Digitizing Shadows from the Walls of Death Part 2

NLM has digitized and made publicly available for the first time, one of four known copies of Shadows from the Walls of Death: Facts and Inferences Prefacing a Book of Specimens of Arsenical Wall Papers, 1874. In this three-part series learn more about the origins of this rare book, the digitization effort, and the arsenic pigments of the 19th century.

By Walter Cybulski ~

It happened in one of the National Library of Medicine’s B3 Level Digitization Labs on Friday, August 11th, 2017.

Outside, the temperature inched toward 80° beneath an overcast sky.  Humidity hovered around 70%, with a slight breeze from the west.

Men it Tyvek suits, masks and gloves work near a book scanner.Inside, approaching 9:00 a.m., I began to insert myself into a hooded DuPont Tyvek® hazmat suit, along with a dust mask and nitrile gloves, courtesy of Lieutenant Brian Czarnecki, MS, CSP, CIH, a U.S. Public Health Service Industrial Hygienist assigned to the NIH Division of Occupational Health & Safety, Office of Research Services.

Brian was there to conduct safety analysis and sampling in order to assess and document the risk posed by handling and scanning the NLM copy of the rare book Shadows from the Walls of Death: Facts and Inferences Prefacing a Book of Specimens of Arsenical Wall Papers (now available online).

Taking samples from the surface of the scanner.As soon as Brian suited up, he unpacked an assortment of swabs, wipes and bottles, collected baseline samples, and measured the dimensions of the room and the scanner.

Based on the size (42 cm), ease of “openability” and overall condition of the book, we decided to use a book2net Cobra A2 V-Cradle scanner  to capture the page images.  A “V” shaped glass would be lowered onto each pair of opened pages to secure them for scanning.

Once Brian had provided me with an over-shoulder suction device that would sample the air I was breathing throughout the project, I placed the book in the scanner cradle and began the capture operation.

Placing the wallpaper book on the scanner.Page after page, the colors revealed why the wallpaper had become so popular. It was an experience to spend time with this famous book. Alluring and lethal—what a combination!

Prudently protected, Brian and I were probably the first persons in decades to come into close proximity with patterns containing combinations of vibrant indigo, buttercup yellow, luminous pink, ruby red, and stunning neon green (“Scheele’s green,” named for the Swedish chemist Carl Scheele, who used copper arsenite to brighten it).

A few pages proved to be somewhat difficult to turn, but overall, the book was not difficult to scan.

It took less than a couple of hours to finish the image capture, secure the book and extract ourselves from the protective gear.  Brian collected post-capture samples from the V-cradle glass, my nitrile gloves, and the lab air— all in a day’s deadly work.

A paisley battern in grey and blue on a green background.

With this deadly reputation, the mention of arsenic can spark fear in even the bravest people, but the naturally occurring element is found everywhere from the air that we breathe to the water that we drink. As Paracelsus, “Father of Toxicology” observed, the dose makes the poison. Exposure to arsenic can occur through three routes: ingestion, inhalation, and dermal absorption. Data from the sampling results indicate that arsenic can transfer from the wallpaper samples to the employee and to the equipment. Although levels were minimal, the use of gloves is highly recommended to minimize contact with skin, as transfer is cumulative, in addition to a thorough wipe-down of equipment. A respirator is not required as concentrations in the air were below detection levels. Today on Occupational Health and Safety Professionals (OHSP) Day, we would like to thank Brian Czarnecki for all of his work to keep NIH employees safe!

Read Part I of this series. On Friday, learn more about the history of arsenical pigments Part 3 of this series!

Like a good mystery? Discover Shadows from the Walls of Death as seen on Mysteries at the MuseumJack the Ripper, Wooden Money, Deadly Décor which premiered Thursday, July 12 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Travel Channel.

Walter Cybulski is Head of the Quality Assurance Unit in the Preservation and Collection Management Section at the National Library of Medicine.



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