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Cornell Magazine (01/96): A Slow Burn
Cornell's book doctors fight to save the
University Libraries' collections from self-destruction.
by Hillel J. Hoffmann '85
The McGraw Tower bells toll the lunch hour as Catherine Murray-Rust,
associate university librarian, leaves her desk at Olin Library and crosses the
concourse to Uris. She walks purposefully through the stacks, in search of books
for her teenage son's Western civilization term paper. Recognizing the
diminutive spines of the Loeb Classical Library series, Murray-Rust stops and
pulls a volume from the shelf. The pages crackle as she turns them. Yellow and
brown fragments of Cicero fall to the floor. Virgil, Ovid, Pliny-all brittle,
too fragile to bear the hands of many more readers. The words of the authors
have survived centuries. The printed pages are less than 50 years old.
If written and printed words form our collective memory, then we're losing
brain cells by the second. Millions of books, manuscripts and other paper
artifacts are destroyed every year, burned slowly, literally, to a crisp-not by
fire, but by acidic paper. Almost all paper used in books, periodicals,
newspapers, manuscripts and correspondence from the middle of the 19th century
to the present day carries the seeds of its own ruin. Acids, chemical leftovers
from a flawed manufacturing process, inevitably break down the microscopic
structure that gives paper its flexibility and durability.
Across the nation, and now here at Cornell, libraries have mobilized to fight
what may be a losing battle against the destruction of paper-based materials.
Combining craftsmanship and science, the University Library's Department of
Preservation and Conservation is struggling to save the endangered bound and
unbound papers of the tenth-largest research library collection in North
Library administrators don't expect their collections to live forever. Books
begin to deteriorate from the moment of their creation. We think of printed
matter as inert, but books and paper are no less perishable than the food in
your refrigerator. They just decay less rapidly. Heat, humidity, mold,
insects-books and paper share enemies with yesterday's uneaten dinner.
Unlike works of art in a museum, books in libraries are meant to be handled,
copied and occasionally checked out. There were 2,017,889 recorded on-campus
"uses" of Cornell's library materials in 1993. "Next to the
Library of Congress, Cornell is the largest net lender in the nation," says
John F. Dean, the preservation and conservation department's director. "You
have to be realistic," he admits with a shrug. "You have to remember
that books don't stay in libraries. People take them home and subject them to
the tender mercies of their breakfasts." Even under ideal environmental
conditions, in the gentlest of hands, books and paper are fundamentally
But now, thanks to paper's built-in acidity-or what Dean and his colleagues
call its "inherent vice"-the preservation and conservation of books
and paper artifacts has become an urgent mission. Recent studies of the
collections of the Library of Congress suggest that at least one-quarter of its
printed volumes are brittle, potentially doomed with one more use. Over 77,000
books per year at the Library of Congress are downgraded from "acidic"
to "brittle." Half the books in the New York Public Library and 40
percent of the books in the Harvard University Library are terminally brittle.
Dean estimates that between one-quarter and one-third of Cornell's library books
and papers would not pass the conservationist's simple embrittlement test: fold
a corner of a page once or twice. If the corner breaks off, the paper's next
handling may be its last.
The sad story of the tiny, broken, yellowed triangles of acidic paper
littering the library floor began 5,000 years ago. The first portable writing
surfaces were Mesopotamian clay tablets and Egyptian papyrus rolls. Both were
eventually replaced by parchment-thin sheets of sheep, goat or calf skin.
Durable and able to hold up to erasures, parchment remained the West's
handwriting surface of choice for centuries (3,500- year-old parchment scrolls
survive today). Although paper had been made in Asia since AD 105, it did not
reach Europe until the Moors brought it to Spain in the 1200s.
Paper is a felted sheet of long, intertwined fibers, created by passing a
soupy suspension of fibrous material through a fine screen. After draining away
the liquid and removing the screen, a thin mat is left to dry. Hold a magnifying
glass up to almost any sheet of paper-the tangles of hair-like strands are easy
to see, almost absurdly coarse. The longer the fiber, the stronger the paper. In
order to increase the absorbency of paper and prevent the spreading of ink, the
tiny holes and valleys between the fibers are filled in with a variety of
chemicals in a process called sizing.
The earliest papers were all made by hand and remain marvels of durability.
The shelves of the rare book vault in the new Kroch Library are covered with
300- to 400-year-old books printed on beautifully preserved paper, whiter and
stronger than paperback books published only 30 years ago. "In my studies
of French literature, I find that primary source material from the 17th century
is in far better shape than books on the topic from this century," says
Carl Kroch University Librarian and Professor of Romance Studies Alain Seznec.
The fibrous building blocks of paper, then as now, are long molecules of
cellulose, the basic structural component of the walls of plant cells. Cellulose
is a polymer, a large molecule made up of many simple, repeating subunits, like
a pearl necklace. Cellulose's "pearls" are molecules of glucose, a
sugar; they combine with each other with the loss of one water molecule per
sugar subunit to form a linear chain. In plants, cellulose chains are
7,000-10,000 units long.
With the invention of the moveable-type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg
in 1450, the demand for more books forced paper makers to seek production
shortcuts. Step by step, the quality of paper began to decline. For centuries,
the source of cellulose fiber in most papers was pulp made from macerated linen
or cotton rags. Improved rag-chewing machines began to shorten cellulose fiber
lengths in middle of the 17th century. At around the same time, paper makers
began to add alum to the sizing. A chain of chemical reactions facilitated by
heat and moisture turns alum into hydrochloric acid. Alum sizings remain in
widespread use today, and cheaper contemporary alums are even more acidic than
sizing additives of the past.
The disastrous climax of the story of paper's decline began in the mid-1800s
with the advent of chemical and mechanical processes for reducing wood into a
fibrous pulp. Wood was cheaper and more plentiful than rags, but chemical wood
digestion and wood pulverization drastically reduced the average length of paper
fibers. Approximately 95 percent of paper-making pulps produced in the United
States today are wood-derived. Mechanical wood grinding also leaves lignin, a
naturally occurring, acidic chemical, in the pulp. You can see the effects of
lignin-rich, machine-ground wood pulp in crumbling newsprint. It's also used to
make book paper in the third world.
The short fiber length in paper made from wood pulp is bad enough, and acid
from alum sizing, lignin and other sources makes it worse. Acids degrade paper
by chemically cutting cellulose molecules; just a few snips here and there along
the chain reduces strength and flexibility. Paper weakened by acidity fractures
when it folds, like a fresh Triscuit. Eighty percent of the bound volumes in
America's research libraries were printed after 1850. That makes four out of
every five Cornell library books acidic time bombs, ticking toward self-
"That deterioration is greatly accelerated by poor environment,"
adds Dean. "Food putrefies at high temperature and high levels of relative
humidity, and so does everything else-and very quickly. For example, for every
increase of ten degrees Fahrenheit over normal room temperature, the life of
paper is shortened by a factor of five."
Heat, humidity, air pollution and exposure to light all hasten the
embrittlement of books printed on acidic paper. High levels of nitric oxide and
sulfur dioxide (the chemical precursors of nitric and sulfuric acids) in the air
of our major cities may explain the higher proportion of brittle volumes in
urban research libraries. But even in clean, rural Ithaca, environmental
conditions are seldom ideal. The bursting of water pipes in winter has become as
predictable as the flight of geese in the fall. Last winter, broken pipes in
Martha van Rensselaer Hall and Carpenter Hall's Engineering Library brought
preservation and conservation staffers out of their homes for emergency drying
work, fanning wet books on drying racks before mold could begin to grow.
Unlike museum storage rooms, libraries need to be as comfortable for patrons
as they are for books and paper. "Mann Library is very hot and dry in the
winter, and humid in the summer. Olin is muggy year-round-we have a problem with
condensation on the windows," laments Book Conservator Peter Verheyen.
"If we wanted to create ideal conditions for the collections, we'd suck out
all the air, turn down the thermostat, turn off the lights and lock it up. But
that's not our mission."
Books from warm, humid parts of the world are particularly vulnerable, as
conservators discovered when they reviewed the Echols collection, Cornell's
outstanding and recently conserved collection of Southeast Asian books.
"When we surveyed material printed in Vietnam, we found the paper to be
extremely deteriorated," Dean recalls. "The paper was very, very
brittle. Some was printed as late as 1972, but it would fall into dust when just
turning the page."
Not all paper is acidic. Some paper makers make paper with an alkaline
reserve. By definition, anything that a chemist would call "acidic"
has a pH below seven (the value assigned to a neutral solution). Alkaline
chemicals (also called bases) buffer acids, neutralizing their ability to
corrode cellulose. An alkaline paper, with a pH over seven, has enough buffering
reserves to fight off environmental acidity for centuries.
Believe it or not, alkaline paper costs no more to produce than acid paper.
"Unfortunately, most paper manufacturers would have to spend considerable
amounts of money to retool their plants," Dean explains. "When only 2
percent of their output is for books, they have little economic incentive."
A scarce few publishers, notably university presses (Cornell University Press
included), print on alkaline paper-look for the infinity symbol [show one] on
the copyright page.
Even for Cornell's Department of Preservation and Conservation, one of the
biggest and most comprehensive in the world, the task of saving the university
collections from the acid paper holocaust seems almost hopeless. As of June 30,
1994, 5,697,525 books could be found in Cornell's 19 libraries or in nearby
storage facilities, along with 211,872 maps and 53,526 cubic feet of
manuscripts. Add non-paper materials, and that's a library shelf more than 167
Like field doctors at war, Cornell conservators practice triage, sorting
patients and allocating treatments to items most in need of care. With limited
resources and over a million brittle patients, who gets attention first? Dean
has mobilized the department to heal on two fronts: the most precious
collections and the most frequently used items.
Cornell has 102 collections that earn the Association of Research Libraries'
"conspectus five" status, a rank reserved for collections of the
greatest importance to the national bibliography. Most libraries have only a
handful. Three floors underground, just beyond the hidden observation cameras in
the rare-book reading room, is the entrance to the rare-book vault in Kroch
Library. Here, in climate-controlled conditions and almost constant darkness,
lie Cornell's special collections: the Echols collection, the only remaining
home of many Southeast Asian books; the French Revolution collection, including
45,000 books, 15,000 pamphlets and the manuscripts of Lafayette and Lavoisier;
the Icelandic collection, thousands of primitively bound 16th-century volumes;
the Anti-slavery collection; the University Archives; the Witchcraft collection;
the History of Science collection; the Human Sexuality collection; the Petrarch
collection; the Dante collection; the Wordsworth collection-every aisle with
ceiling-high shelves of priceless, unique resources for researchers.
Although the staff rejects the notion of any items in the collections being
treated as the university's crown jewels ("I think that connotes a certain
museum preciousness that is not what we're about," bristles Curator of Rare
Books Mark Dimunation), special pieces earn special attention. When the
University Library's flagship books and papers need care, they're sent to the
department's top artisans, Book Conservator Peter Verheyen and Paper Conservator
Verheyen works in a small office in the basement of Olin Library, surrounded
by the timeless tools of his craft: bone folders, thick needles, scalpels, wash
basins, drying racks, a compression press and boxes of brass type. When books
from Cornell's special collections arrive on his desk, Verheyen takes them
apart, cleans each page, and then reassembles them with the efficient care of an
experienced parent bathing a child. Pages are soaked one by one in warm water,
supported by a polyester mesh. Rinse and repeat: "It's like washing a fine
silk shirt," he explains. After cleansing, potentially brittle sheets
are bathed in a de-acidifying alkaline solution. Damaged pages are mended with
durable, long-fibered Japanese paper. The renewed pages are then pressed to
remove excess moisture, dried, resewn onto linen tapes, and, if necessary,
rebound. Verheyen makes elegant, custom-fitted cloth boxes for material in need
of careful handling.
Trained on Rembrandts, Matisses and Delaunays at the Hermitage in St.
Petersburg, Tatyana Petukhova is the department's art-on-paper expert. Her
spotless lab at the Library Annex is a short drive from Olin, an apple's toss
from the Cornell Orchards. Here Petukhova uses all of her art-restoration and
paper-chemistry experience to conserve what seem like irreparably degraded
artifacts: fractured 19th-century engravings, weakened by acidic paper;
yellowed, hand-colored French caricatures; cloth-backed maps from the 1800s,
coated with decaying varnish.
After analyzing paper and pigment under a polarized-light microscope, she
must decide whether treatment is appropriate- conservators, like doctors, live
by a rigid "do no harm" code. Petukhova can relax paper artifacts in a
humidification chamber, moistening objects without touching them. Pieces are
often washed on a special table, where suction from below gently pulls a
cleansing aqueous solution through an artifact. An alkaline bath neutralizes the
acidic paper substrate, and acidic boards and mattes are replaced by new
The satisfactions of conservation work are not unlike those of a surgeon.
"Sometimes I feel in a way like a doctor," says Petukhova. "You
create these miracles. You see a piece in very poor condition, badly damaged,
and sometimes you think, 'I can't do anything.' Look at this one-it's moldy,
brown, deteriorated. And then after conservation, it's alive again."
Verheyen, Petukhova and their assistants work as fast as they can, but
conservation treatment of a badly damaged book or paper artifact can take up to
a day or two. Although appropriate for special collections and flagship pieces,
unit- by-unit cleaning and de-acidification can't keep pace with demand when it
comes to the libraries' meat and potatoes: books in the circulating collection.
Dean and his staff know that they cannot conserve all the brittle books and
papers in the general collection. They also know that they don't have to. Very
few of the libraries' materials are in circulation at any one time, and the
popularity of books, like courses and hemlines, rises and falls with changing
times. Most go untouched for decades.
"The average rate of use for an item in a research library is about once
every 50 or 60 years," Dean explains. "Statistically, we know that the
only reliable indicator of future use is past use. If something has just been
returned, the chances are that someone's going to want to borrow it again. So by
directing our efforts at dealing with those materials that are actually used, we
feel that we're serving the readers very well."
Every book that crosses the circulation desk is checked for brittleness. Tens
of thousands fail the corner-folding test every year. Some new copies are
purchased, some are placed back on the shelf to die a natural death, some lucky
volumes buy a few more decades of use by getting de-acidified by hand. The
preservation and conservation department is also monitoring the potential of
mass de-acidification-the chemical buffering of thousands of books and papers at
one time in large chambers. But de-acidification cannot cure a brittle book. An
alkaline bath stabilizes acidic paper, preventing it from reaching terminal
embrittlement, but paper that's weak and crumbling before treatment remains weak
after treatment. Books and papers that have reached the point of no return need
to be reborn in another form. A Buddhist might call it reincarnation.
Preservationists call it "reformatting." For now, most reformatted
materials take one of two shapes. Neither is much loved.
A few hundred brittle items each year are made into "preservation
photocopies," replaced on the shelf by a carefully photocopied facsimile on
acid-free paper. The rest are microfilmed. Although preservation microfilming
remains the only reformatting technique that earns the approval of the
mainstream library preservation community (film has proven to be extremely
durable and cheap), no technology is more reviled by users. Who hasn't cursed,
weeping from eyestrain, at microfilm reading machines?
"Microfilm is not a user-friendly medium," admits Anne R. Kenney,
associate director of the Department of Preservation and Conservation. "You
have to get up and go to a different place to use a machine; typically, offices
do not have microfilm readers. The printed version coming off of most of these
readers is not very high quality. And the film does not lend itself to research
in a number of disciplines-you wouldn't use the microfilm of music scores to
play." Kenney realizes that libraries need to find more sympathetic,
accessible reformatting technologies. She leads the preservation and
conservation department's most innovative exploratory project: in cooperation
with Xerox, Cornell preservationists have reformatted more than 2,000 books by
transforming their words from deteriorating pages into digital computer files.
On the third floor of Olin, in a room overlooking Uris and West Hill, Michael
Friedman and Susan Poucher of the scanning and digitization unit are placing
acidic and brittle books from the circulating collections of Mann Library and
the Math Library on high-speed scanners. They scan 300 pages, or about one
volume, per hour-as fast as a photocopier. Six hundred dots per inch of scanned
image are captured and printed (the more dots per inch, the finer and more
accurate the reproduction; a normal FAX machine resolves only 200 to 300 dots
Once the initial scan is complete, preservationists can create a number of
different products: a readable, on-screen image for browsing; duplicate books
printed on acid-free paper, nearly indistinguishable from the originals; and
microfilm. But the end-product that excites librarians the most is one that
can't be touched-a digital facsimile that may be accessed, downloaded and
printed out over computer networks. Kenney imagines a not-so-distant future when
users will search digital research libraries all over the world, pulling
material from electronic shelves far from Ithaca, no longer thwarted by closed
stacks or limited hours. However, preservationists must first resolve the thorny
issues of technological standardization and the relatively short life- span of
optical discs, magnetic tapes and other electronic storage media. Is the book
dead? Corrupted from within by acidic paper, perhaps soon to be replaced by
digital textÉ[insert brilliant, pithy concluding quote from Dean describing
lasting value and cultural importance of the book-why they must be saved. A new
quote has been solicited, but I'm tired of waiting for it, so I'm sending this
to you anyway.]
HOW TO SAVE YOUR PERSONAL RECORD
Libraries are not the only battlegrounds in the war against the
self-destruction of the human record. Many people save the physical
manifestations of their memories, their roots: letters, photographs,
certificates. Even fairly recent graduates may have noticed that their yearbooks
have started to become yellow and brittle. The ravages of acidic paper,
compounded by poor environmental conditions, are seldom reversible, but here are
a few tips to ensure that your personal and family records live to the
millennium and beyond:
Not too hot, not too cold. Books and papers last longest when storage
temperatures never exceed 75 degrees Fahrenheit. That means that human
preferences for heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer make the
inhabited parts of your home the best place for your personal artifacts. Attics
can be too hot. Keep temperatures constant: an unheated room is great, but avoid
big temperature fluctuations.
Keep 'em dry. Moisture promotes mold growth and accelerates acid damage.
Ideal preservation conditions require relative humidity to stay below 65
percent. Keep books and papers out of the basement, and avoid placing
bookshelves too near a shower stall.
Make copies. Some ephemera-photos and newspaper clippings, for example-have
such a short life expectancy that you may want to prepare for the worst by
taking them to a professional photocopier. Demand archival paper-many
establishments carry the good stuff for students' dissertations and other
Storage technology: shop smart. Many suppliers (Conservation Resources
International, Gaylord Brothers, Light Impressions, University Products) make
archival containers. Some will fulfill small orders. When shopping for papers,
boards, folders or boxes, ask for products that are made from cotton or sulfite
wood pulp (not ground wood); are lignin-free; and are marked as
"alkaline" or "buffered." Plastic sleeves should be made
from polyester film, polypropylene or polyethylene.
Photo care. Use photo corners to hold pictures in albums. Stay away from
glue, tape or albums with adhesive under plastic sleeves. Don't put pictures
face-to-face, on both sides of an open spread: color photos can stick together
if their surfaces touch. Do not let alkaline or buffered paper touch color
photographs-use neutral paper.