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5. Determining the physical condition of the materials in the collections

5.1 Appearance
5.2 Wear and tear
5.3 Soil and surface dirt
5.4 Stains
5.5 Acid damage
5.6 Oxidation
5.7 Biological damage
5.8 Damage by light
5.9 Water damage

 

(Using the C Forms)

Becoming familiar with the physical characteristics of a library or archives building and being knowledgeable about the exterior and interior environments is necessary when planning for preventive conservation in order to reduce or eliminate conditions that have a negative affect on the collections in that building. In this survey procedure that information will have been accumulated the A and B data forms.

The rest of the survey consists of assembling information (on the C data forms) in regard to the physical condition of the books and records on the shelves, in order to determine their treatment needs. Some types of damage, and the required corrective treatment, will be obvious. Recognition of other types of damage is more difficult. The following are suggestions for guidance when examining different categories of materials as well as individual items. Careful observation and notation during this stage of the process will provide data from which meaningful conclusions and recommendations can later be made.

The C1 and C3 forms should be used for describing the condition of various categories of materials (reference, geneology, children's books, 19th century fiction, books by local authors, boxed documents, etc., etc.). Form C2 will be most useful for determining the condition of individual items of sufficient importance to warrant that attention. They might include most, if not all, pre-1800 volumes; first editions of prominent authors; rare and valuable books of any period; holographs; etc.

Except for items that are of particular importance because of their rarity, intellectual content, association value, etc. it is obviously impossible to look at every book in a library collection, or every document in an archive. However, experience is a good teacher. With practice and a method for random selection one can assemble much useful information about the general condition of any category of materials. Judith Fortson-Jones, at the Nebraska Historical Society (10) got good results by looking at and recording the condition of every tenth item in the manuscripts and records there. See also Nainis (19), Library of Congress (28), and Walker (29) for information on random selection procedures used at other establishments.

5.1 Appearance

The overall appearance of each collection or category of materials is useful information. If materials that have been on the shelves for years are still clean and crisp, with intact covers that suggests (a) that they are made of good quality, acid resistant, materials, and (b) they have been well cared for over the years. Of course it is possible that materials made with inferior materials and poor workmanship, that have been little used, could still "look good" on the shelves, but upon closer inspection it will be found that the bindings are fragile and the paper stained and even brittle because of acid hydrolysis, oxidation, etc.

5.2 Wear and tear

Shelved books with worn, torn, soiled, stained and delapidated covers should be examined for evidence of chemical and biological damage as well as the physical abuse that they obviously have had.

5.3 Soil and surface dirt

Soil on books and documents will range from loosely adhering dust and dirt to grime that is deeply embedded in the paper fibers. The former can often be easily removed by dusting and erasing - that is seldom possible with the latter. Notations should be made on the data form as to whether the soil is erasable dirt or grime, and whether the soiling is occasional or widespread on the items in that category.

5.4 Stains

Stains are another matter because (a) they are always unsightly, (b) they sometimes obliterate information, and (c) they are often evidence of chemical (acid), photochemical (effect of light), or biological (fungus) damage. Other stains may be only water soluble color transported into the paper when it has been wet for one reason or another. Still others could have been caused by solvents reacting with ink, particularly offset printing inks which are so often used in book making today and many writing inks. Stain identification is not easy but careful notation of the extent of staining on individual items and categories of materials is important. In the vast majority of cases stain reduction, if and when it is later decided to do that, should only be done by professional conservators.

5.5 Acid damage

Early recognition of acid damage is of the utmost importance. Acid contaminated books and documents are doomed unless something is done to neutralize the acid in them. Paper chemists and conservators use laboratory instruments for the precise measurement of the degree of acidity (or alkalinity) in paper. In a library or archive slight acid contamination is undetectable visually, but the degree of acid contamination (the pH), in not yet discolored book and document paper, can be approximately determined by testing with pH test paper strips sold by library supply houses. Archivists pens, also available from library supply houses, are useful for determining if paper is acid (or alkaline) but they will not provide any evidence of the degree of acid contamination (i.e. slightly, moderately or highly acid). Testing for acid in paper should be standard practice when examining special collections (see Cunha 9b).

The first visible evidence of acid hydrolysis in books and documents is a slight discoloration of the paper. The discoloration becomes greater as time goes on, and the acid content increases, until the paper becomes deeply and uniformly "brown stained" and is on the verge of embrittlement. Identification and flagging of brown stained paper is important because if that is done soon enough the material can be saved from embrittlement by deacidifying it.

The ultimate in acid contamination is when the brown stained paper becomes brittle to the point where it crumbles when being handled and is useless for research or circulation. The usual recourse when that happens is to transfer to another format, usually microfilm, to save the printed or written information. The alternative, when the material has to be retained in its original format, is treatment by professionals who can deacidify, mend, and reinforce the fragile sheets, making them usable again.

5.6 Oxidation

Recent laboratory studies suggest that damage to paper by oxidation could be could be a more serious problem than contamination by acid. Regardless, from the librarian and archivists points of view, the difference between oxidation and acid damage in paper is indistinguishable. The early effects of oxidation are visually undetectable, but the extent of oxidation damage, even in its early stages, can be determined in a laboratory with instruments for measuring the loss of strength of paper ( tear, fold, and burst strength) and changes in its color and tone.

5.7 Biological damage

5.7.1 Mould and mildew

The first evidence of fungus attack on materials is mildew on their surfaces. In the beginning it is only a nuisance that can be brushed or vacuumed away but it is important because the mildew (fungus spores) is evidence that the temperature and humidity in the area may not be satisfactory for records storage.

The second stage of fungus damage is the staining of paper by the growth of the fungus down into the material on which the spores have come to rest. The evidence of that is brown, blue, green or violet spots (they can also be the other colors) of various shapes and sizes, rather than the uniform brown staining of the entire sheet that is caused by acid. Fungus staining is a serious situation that calls for sterilization of the materials and the surrounding area. After sterilization, if it is important to remove the stains, that can only be done by professionals.

The last stage of fungus damage is when the stained and damaged paper becomes soft to the point where it falls apart even with careful handling. Fungus "pulped" paper is soft - paper destroyed by acid is brittle and breaks into many pieces.

5.7.2 Insect damage

After a little experience, various types of insect damage, all too common in libraries, are easily recognized. Cockroaches eat through the cloth and paper spines and board coverings on books to get at, and devour, the animal and vegetable glue underneath. Silverfish and firebrats are more delicate and eat only the surface of paper. Termites, once they penetrate a book, turn the text block paper into shreds. The larvae of the many varieties of bookworms (carpet beetles, larder beetles, powder post beetles, etc.) tunnel their way through books destroying the text in the process.

5.7.3 Rodents.

Libraries and archives are havens for rats and mice, and even squirrels and other gnawing animals. When they become hungry enough, rats devour leather and frequently paper. Large, black pellets of feces, about the size of raisins, on the floor, and on the shelves behind the books, are unmistakable proof that rats are in the building. Other evidence of the presence of rats (which once seen will never be forgotten) is prominent teeth marks on the chewed edges of book covers and paper.

Mice, because of their small size, do less damage than rats and squirrels. They like boxes of paper for nesting places. Evidence of their presence is smaller feces pellets, like black grains of rice. Another telltale is urine stains, in places which they select and use regularly for that purpose.

5.8 Damage by light

Photo-oxidation, which takes place when paper and textiles and other organic materials are exposed to sunlight and fluorescent lighting, is slow deterioration. At first it is not too serious (fading ink on displayed documents; color changes on pictures, posters and maps; faded spines on shelved books) but it is a warning that the lighting in the area is not good from the point of view of conservation. Continuous exposure to that unsatisfactory lighting will, over an extended period of time, result in the loss of crucial information on documents, the complete loss of some colors on maps and pictures, and the splitting of book cover joints, and the eventual separation of the backs of books from the rest of the covers.

5.9 Water damage

Books and documents damaged by flooding can sometimes be salvaged on the scene immediately after the accident. Or they can be frozen and kept in cold storage until the can be freeze dried weeks or months later. Those are disaster recovery operations that are a thing apart from the subject for this study. On the other hand, it is not unusual for water stained books; books, now dry, but swollen and distorted by water damage sometime in the past; or documents and other paper records with water smudged ink and colors; to be discovered during a conservation survey. That damage could have been caused by recent, or earlier, roof leaks, faulty plumbing, defective steam lines, or clogged drains. If that is so the source of the unwanted water must be located and repaired as soon as possible, if that has not already been done. The condition of each item so damaged should be described on a separate Data Form C3.


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