The Rush To Save Books

3 Million Crumbling

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