Contents - Previous - Next

1. The scope of the problem

1.1 The general condition of library and archives collections

In most libraries and archives the general condition of books and paper records is not good because of hard use, chemical deterioration, inadequate storage, and the effect of the environments in which they are kept. Records deterioration has existed since people first began to systematically document the histories of their times on parchment, papyrus, leather, bone, clay and stone, and other materials thousands of years ago, long before paper was first used in China. The situation became acute in the 19th century when, in order to meet the ever increasing demand for paper, and capitalizing on the burgeoning technologies of the industrial revolution, papermaking and bookmaking were mechanized with major changes in the techniques and materials used for each. This, combined with the effects of air pollution, in heavily industrialized areas, on organic materials (paper, leather, fabrics), has resulted in a situation in which it can be conservatively estimated that 40 to 50% of the books in most libraries in the United States today are in need of physical care, and 20%, because of their brittle pages, are beyond the point where they can be used without seriously damaging them.

In 1982 it was observed - "It is not necessary to tell you about the general condition of books in libraries from the abuse they receive. It is sufficient to reiterate what Frazer Poole at the Library of Congress reported in 1973 that 'over one third of the books in that great institution are too brittle to use.' At that time Poole also predicted that 'most non-fiction published from 1900 to 1999 would be unusable by the year 2000.'

I think that his most significant observation at a later date was that if the Library of Congress kept only 10% of its six million brittle books (in 1973) and took care of them at the rate of 20,000 books a year it would take eighteen million dollars and thirty years to do the job" 19a). - Today the situation is different. Now, because of the availability of mass deacidification and other technical developments, and because librarians and archivists are accepting conservation management as one of their everyday responsibilities (see references 8, 11, 15, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 30 and 31) Mr. Poole's gloomy predictions are no longer valid.

The attention now being given to preservation is ample evidence that librarians and archivists, at long last, agree that this vitally important aspect of collection management can be ignored only at great cost. Dr. Richard Smith's estimate of those costs (26) are mind boggling. According to his calculations, based on examination of the condition of identical volumes in Chicago's Newberry Library; Lawrence University Library in Appleton, Wisconsin; and the New York Public Library, books in libraries in America are deteriorating, because of acid hydrolysis and the other enemies of books, at a rate of 57% in fifteen years and 85% in twenty two years. In terms of dollars that means that the costs, because of deterioration, in America's research libraries, with their 300,000,000 books, was $1,440,000,000 in 1985. That is about four times the annual book budgets of those libraries for the same year. In other words, according to Smith, the value of American research library collections is moving backward. It can only be assumed that the situation is the same in libraries elsewhere in the world.

Contents - Previous - Next