Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity       January 2001 • Volume XXIII, Number 3

It's one thing when the dog eats your homework. It's quite another when Fido chews an out-of-print nineteenth century monograph. Preservation librarians see it all in their fight to save
threatened collections.

Of Brittle Books and Twinkie Stains

by Eric Pfeffinger

In the basement of the Main Library on the IU Bloomington campus, set back amid cages and forbidding double doors, the Preservation Department fights a daily battle against water damage, torn spines, and discolored glues.

Granted, it’s not a battle NBC will be building a weekly drama around, but the business of preservation is a vital one for large research libraries such as IU’s. It’s also, as it happens, a fascinating discipline that attracts passionate and hard-working perfectionists able to embrace technologies both archaic and cutting-edge.

Melissa McAfee is one such perfectionist. She arrived in Bloomington as the head of the IUB Libraries Preservation Department in February of 2000, after having run similar departments at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Texas, and the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

She has her job cut out for her. The Bloomington library system has some 6 million volumes. About 10 percent of those are composed of brittle, acidic paper that has deteriorated to the point that the books are no longer usable. Another 50 percent contain the same acidic wood-pulp paper and will also reach the point of being unusable if steps aren’t taken to salvage them.

“That’s a lot of material coming down the pike,” McAfee says, and that doesn’t even count the books that fall victim to water leaks, heating systems, mold, library patrons’ voracious pets, and—believe it or not—Twinkies. Yes, McAfee has had at least one book brought to her that had a Twinkie smashed between two pages, as if the patron had been trying to press it like a rose."

Illustration by Joe Lee

“The goal of preservation,” McAfee says, “is to ensure that access to library materials will be maintained for generations of customers.”

Resources being limited, it clearly isn’t possible to repair, replace, and fortify every book that needs attention. “Selection is the most critical and probably the most controversial aspect of the preservation process,” McAfee acknowledges. “What is selected or not selected for preservation impacts heavily on the quality of library collections, so it’s crucial that these decisions be based on intelligently informed guidelines.”

But McAfee doesn’t see conflict between the goal of preservation and the ideal of ready access. “In most research libraries,” she points out, “selection for preservation is determined by the books that are used by library customers. Preservation ensures that the materials customers desire remain accessible.”

Recommendations for preservation also come from bibliographers—subject librarians and other librarians around campus—which helps ensure that works central to particular disciplines aren’t overlooked. McAfee is also at work on mechanisms to help clarify preservation options. Soon, Preservation Department staff members reviewing an at-risk book will complete a form that identifies the book’s problems (brittle or substantial number of pages missing), its popularity (number of circulations and last circulation date), and its rarity (number of other libraries that own a copy). This data will assist the bibliographers in deciding just what should be done with the patient.

That’s when the choices get even more complicated. Repair the binding and return the book to the shelves? Enclose it in a protective box? Transfer the book’s contents to microfilm or acid-free paper? Move the book to a safer, more remote location? Or simply order a newer copy of the book, if it is in print?

Indiana University Bloomington Preservation Librarian Melissa McAfee works on a new cover for a 1905 volume, while conservation technicians Soline d'Haussy, back left, and Garry Harrison tech to other books in the IUB Main Library's basement preservation laboratory.
Photo © 2000 Tyagan Miller

Each option has advantages and drawbacks. Removing an item from the open stacks helps preserve the intellectual content of the book and its artifactual value, but it also reduces the volume’s accessibility. The IUB library system is establishing a new Auxiliary Library Facility (ALF) on the northeastern edge of campus, a climate-controlled and densely shelved storage space that will hold 2.68 million books. Because the space is designed for storage, not browsing, volumes will be shelved by size, not subject matter, and the environment will be maintained at 30 percent relative humidity and 50°F. As a result, the ALF will not only help relieve the library system’s critical space crunch (IUB’s Main Library reached its capacity for books in 1989), but will also contribute to its holdings’ longevity.

“Climate control is the most cost-effective way of preserving books,” McAfee avows. “With every 18°F rise in temperature, the deterioration rate generally doubles.”

Of course, it’s also a solution that could be inconvenient for a browsing library patron who needs a book onMilton only to learn it’s in cold storage. That’s why one of the criteria for selecting materials for transfer to the ALF will be low usage. In any event, ALF materials will be able to be retrieved on demand and delivered to patrons on a daily basis.

But not being able to lay hands on a book is only the most obvious access issue. In McAfee’s view, enclosing fragile old volumes in protective boxes on the library’s open shelves can be similarly problematic.

“It’s fine for a rare book library or remote shelving,” McAfee says, “and it does keep the piece together. But if you open the box, you find the pages are falling out. I feel bad for the user.”

Indeed, some patrons won’t even peruse a volume that’s in a box—it looks too forbidding or elaborate or special. “People assume it’s not in good shape, or students say ‘Forget it, it’s too much trouble,’” McAfee says.

Psychology plays a significant role in questions of preservation and access. Take microfilm, for example. McAfee tells the story of a historian at a university where she worked in the mid-1990s.

“He had these old books, and they were in horrible shape,” she recalls. “‘It’s a shame,’ he said, ‘they’re in a shambles.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, we have those books on microfilm. They’re right there. It cost us thousands of dollars to reformat them.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I know. But I’m not going to use microfilm.’

“From the standpoint of preservation, microfilm’s the best option,” McAfee continues. “It will last 500 years. But if people aren’t going to use it . . .”

That’s why high-tech options have become more appealing. But that doesn’t mean the Preservation Department is converting hard-copy books into digitized files you can read on a screen, talk of paperless societies and digital libraries notwithstanding.

“Digitization is not yet a preservation option in and of itself,” McAfee explains. “Technology obsolesces so quickly that if you commit to it, you really have to commit to migration; otherwise, you’re going to lose the stuff. Digital files have to be migrated in order to remain accessible, and that’s a potentially costly procedure.

“The smart thing to do is either to keep the book, even after it’s been digitized, or make a copy on acid-free paper or microfilm,” McAfee continues. “IU has been really good in that respect. Digital technology definitely has a place in preservation, but as a hybrid approach.”

One such hybrid approach is the “scan-to-print” option employed in the Preservation Department. Using a Xerox® software program, the book is scanned page by page into the computer and cleaned up. “We can re-create text if it’s missing, we can improve contrast, remove handwritten notes—the copy looks better than the original,” McAfee says.

Then the text is sent to a printer who uses acid-free paper. The pages come back, and the preservation team does a quality-control check before cutting the pages down to size with a manual guillotine and sending them off to a commercial binder. What comes back is a brand-new, and eminently accessible, version of the old unusable volume.

“It’s labor-intensive,” McAfee admits, “and it’s a good option only if the book is important primarily for its intellectual content and does not have high artifactual value, such as an important binding.”

Water spills, canine teething, and careless cooks are just a few of the things that damage books in library collections.

Despite such uses of twenty-first-century technology, much of the Preservation Department’s daily activity is devoted to hands-on repair work. One set of shelves is divided into sections designated “Mount Spine,” “Recase,” and so forth. Work benches are furnished with presses and paper cutters that are highly pragmatic in design. In one area, Soline d’Haussy, a conservation technician, works diligently on salvaging the cover and contents of an 1836 Russian monograph by inserting new boards, spine lining, and acid-free end sheets. “You’re lucky when you get people who care about all the tiny details,” McAfee observes with a smile.

The view from McAfee’s desk is more dire, overlooking a stretch of shelves holding books that have failed the “four-fold” test: if you can’t fold a corner of a page over and back again four times without it growing brittle or breaking off, the book is on its last metaphorical legs. That’s the case for this sad assortment of aged tomes, ranging from a volume of translated Rilke to a biography of Alexander the Great to a book called Hindu Astronomy to an illustrated handbook of British fungi. O.K., so not all of them would make great beach reading, but they’re all candidates for reformatting using the scan-to-print option in the department’s brittle books unit.

McAfee makes it clear that the ideal, and ultimately cheapest, approach is preventative. That’s why she has selected a portion of IU’s books for mass deacidification. One company—Preservation Technologies in Pittsburgh, Pa.—meets the Library of Congress’s standards for mass deacidification, which is essentially a process of neutralizing the acids in paper that cause it to become brittle and inoculating books against future acidic contamination. McAfee sent a sample of 1,200 books—all twentieth-century American literature, acidic but able to withstand the process—to be treated. She hopes that will open the door for other IU holdings to be similarly treated.

Maybe then, decades down the road, the IUB Preservation Department will be able to spend less time rescuing brittle books and devote more energies to timeless daily challenges such as canine teeth marks and pressed Twinkies.

For more information:
IUB Libraries Preservation Department

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