The Rush To Save Books

3 Million Crumbling

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."