The Rush To Save Books

3 Million Crumbling

This is the first of two articles on Harvard's imperiled library system.

It's a known fact--books are crumbling on the shelves all over Harvard, and the University doesn't have the money to save them. Library officials estimate that approximately one-third of the 10.5 million volumes in the University Library system are currently deteriorating. Officials says it will cost about $350 million to preserve all of them.

"No matter how much we raise, it won't be enough," says Sidney Verba '53, director of the University Library. "No one thinks it is feasible to save every book."

At Langdell Library in the Law School, more than a half-million volumes are crumbling. At Countway Library in the Medical School, more than 150,000 books are falling to pieces. At Gutman Library in the Graduate School of Education, 50,000 books are turning to dust on the shelves. And at Widener Library, the flagship of the Harvard University Library system, more than 1 million books are crumbling.

Books have been falling apart since paper was invented, but it was only about eight years ago that librarians--both at Harvard and across the country--realized the extent of the problem. The catalyst was a study conducted by the Library of Congress which revealed that one-third of books in the national archives were decaying.


Book deterioration is caused by a combination of factors, including environmental conditions, use, and acidity of the paper, says Doris M. Freitag, conservator of the University Library. Many of the books printed between 1800 and 1900 were printed on acidic paper because it was cheaper than acid-free paper and printed just as clearly. However, the acid in the paper "reacts with the air and breaks down the paper fibers," Freitag says. Books can begin deteriorating within 30 years of publication.

In order to combat this problem, librarians have banded together in a nationwide effort to pool resources to preserve as many books as they can. "There's a lot of cooperation and coordination between libraries," says Freitag. "Everybody's involved."

Microfilming--the principal method for preserving deteriorated books--is very expensive ($50 per volume), so national library conferences are working to cut costs by sharing microfilms and developing cheaper methods of preservation. Even the government has jumped on the bandwagon, giving $6 million each year to libraries to microfilm unique materials.

Although deterioration is a problem in every library at Harvard, it is especially serious in Harvard's older libraries because of their lack of climate control. Extreme fluctuations in temperature are especially hazardous to books. In the stacks at Widener, for example, the mercury climbs to 85 degrees in the summer, with 75 percent humidity.

Library Director Verba says that climate control is "the single most effective way of preservation." However, it is "incredibly expensive" to install in older libraries, so Harvard does not have current plans to install climate control in any library except Widener and possibly the Business School's Baker Library. It would be "part of the overall plan" of preservation, Verba says, to determine where climate control is most needed.

Under the current procedure of preservation, the preservation departments of individual libraries generally are notified of deteriorating volumes through their respective circulation departments. Book selectors at each of the libraries then decide whether volumes can be preserved simply (i.e. rebound or recased) or whether more significant preservation is needed. If they are unsure about what treatment is best, they consult Freitag, who then makes the decision depending on whether the volume itself should be preserved. Some books which are determined to be "rare" are stored in Houghton Library, Harvard's storehouse of rare books.

Officials say that about 4000 books are transferred to Houghton from Widener each year. The other major libraries (such as Langdell, Countway, and Baker) have their own rare book departments.

Books which are not in such bad shape are sent to either an in-house or a commercial bindery, depending on just how badly they are falling apart. Acid-free containers, known as "phase boxes," are also used in order to preserve the integrity of the book.

If the book does have "brittle paper," and is therefore unusable, the library first checks to see if a reprint or a duplicate microfilm can be purchased. In the event that neither of these is available, the book is sent to be microfilmed in Harvard's own department in the basement of Widener. Even after being microfilmed, the book is looked at again to determine whether there is any value in keeping it. "We are superconservative" in throwing away books, Freitag says.

In terms of cost, Freitag says, it is much less expensive to buy a duplicate microfilm of a book ($1) or to rebind it ($6), than to microfilm it ($50). Because Harvard libraries operate under a decentralized system, money for preservation must come out of each individual library's budget, Freitag says. "That determines how much they can preserve."