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The Rush To Save Books

3 Million Crumbling

By Teresa L. Johnson

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."

Following are the Harvard libraries with severe book deterioration problems:

Langdell: Conditions "Very Poor"

Eighty-year-old Langdell Library at the Law School is just one example of a library with serious climate control problems. Of the 1.5 million volumes in the collection, about one-third are endangered, according to an estimate by Willis Meredith, head of Langdell's preservation department. Meredith says "conditions are very poor" in the main stacks, which are underground and have no air conditioning.

Under a specific bequest from the Title 2C program--which dispenses government money to preserve unique materials--Langdell microfilmed 18,000 volumes of Latin American law gazettes last year and employed one full-time staff member specifically for that preservation work.

"We're talking about our cultural heritage falling apart, and we're not going to be able to save all of it," says Meredith.

Countway: One-Third Crumbling

The problem is just as severe at Countway Library in the Medical School, library officials say. "I estimate that one-third of the collection is crumbling on the shelf," says Miriam H. Allman, assistant librarian for collection development and management. Deterioration is a problem that "needed attention before it became so severe that it couldn't be remedied," she says, explaining that several volumes which were sent for preservation had deteriorated so much that they could not be microfilmed.

Countway Library, which was built in 1965, has no climate control, and some of its stacks are underground. "The air conditioning is not adequate," she says. "We're not as bad as Widener," she says, but adds that the library is not getting money from the University to improve conditions. "Whatever's available, Widener gets."

Librarians are currently conducting a systematic evaluation of the collection to determine which journals need recasing, Allman says. The evaluation is expected to be completed within a year.

Allman says many doctors at Countway see old medical texts as being dated, and thus not a priority for the library. "Different libraries perceive the financial commitment differently," Allman says. Doctors at the medical school library have a "tendency to forget about the importance of older things," Allman says, because they are "oriented toward solving current clinical problems."

Gutman: Similar Problems

Despite the fact that it is housed in a new building, Gutman Library at the Graduate School of Education has the same problems, says John W. Collins, head librarian at Gutman. One-third of the 150,000 volumes in their collection are deteriorating, he says. Among those volumes crumbling on the shelves is a large collection of books from the 18th and 19th centuries, including 35,000 18th century textbooks.

Gutman follows the same preservation procedures as other Harvard libraries, conducting basic repairs and microfilming as necessary. Deterioration is "worse for other libraries," Collins says.

Happier Houghton

Not all of Harvard's libraries are hazardous to books' health. Houghton Library, Harvard's goldmine of rare books, was originally constructed with its special preservation needs in mind. Built in 1942, Houghton was the first library to have atmospheric controls integrated into the building plan, according to Roger E. Stoddard, curator of rare books. "That's the very best thing you can do," says Stoddard, explaining the importance of a steady temperature and humidity level to the life of a book. "If you allow books to partake of the New England atmosphere, they will be destroyed."

At Houghton, the chief threat to a book or manuscript's life is wear. Due to the extreme fragility of many of its 400,000 books and more than 2 million manuscripts, materials are non-circulating. However, an increasing number of volumes, such as William Blake's illuminated books, have been declared completely non-circulating because "they are just so fragile and light-sensitive."

Stoddard says that much of the collection is on fragile paper (especially the correspondence) which cannot withstand much wear at all. "Our problem for the future," he says, will be to adequately preserve the letters while still making them "accessible to all scholars to examine." At this point, microfilming is the best solution, Stoddard says.

But microfilming can only go so far. Many of the books in Houghton need to be preserved in their original form. "There are certain things that you cannot allow to be worn out because they cannot be replaced," says Stoddard. "Microfilm serves the needs of most readers," he says, but "microfilm won't show you how the book was put together... There is no substitute when it comes to evidence for the book itself."

Funding for Houghton's microfilming comes mostly from outside endowments, which include the Title 2C grant from the Department of Education, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Stoddard says. Other preservation efforts are paid for out of the library's own budget.

Although Houghton is doing a lot of microfilming, other techniques of preservation are being used to preserve original volumes. Pamphlets are bound in cloth to prevent them from falling apart, and endangered books are kept in specially constructed hinged boxes. These boxes are used both for books bound with sharp clasps and for those with "a fragile wrapper or cover."

"Deterioration of bindings has been an enormous problem for decades," says Stoddard. He estimated that several thousand of the books were in need of binding repair. The library uses an outside bindery which can, according to Stoddard, "put a leather binding back in working condition" despite serious deterioration.

Even if the efforts in Houghton and other libraries succeed, officials agree there is no way to save every book. The answer to preserving Harvard's written legacy, they say, lies in extensive microfilming, laser disks, special preservation sprays and other solutions which are still in the experimental stage. Whether Harvard can afford these solutions, officials say, remains an open question.

Tomorrow: What Harvard is doing to save its decaying books.At the Law School's Langdell Library, a half-million volumes are crumbling

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