The Alkaline Paper Advocate

Volume 1, Number 2
Mar 1988

Why GPO Should use Alkaline Paper

A background paper prepared for the October 1987 meeting of the Depository Library Council, by Linda Nainis (Collection Management Librarian at the Georgetown University Law Library), Charles Kalina (Special Projects Officer at the National Library of Medicine), Carolyn Morrow Mann (Preservation Program Officer at the Library of Congress) and Jan Merrill-Oldham (Preservation Officer at the University of Connecticut), with the assistance of about 30 specialists in government documents, paper, preservation, and government archives who reviewed drafts of the paper and offered suggestions as it was being written. The recommendation passed by the Depository Library Council on the basis of this paper was published in the February issue of the Abbey Newsletter. It requests that the Public Printer (head of the Government Printing Office) communicate the Council's concerns to the Joint Committee on Printing, which sets standards for paper, and tell government publishers about the availability and benefits of permanent paper. It also recommends that the GPO encourage the use of permanent paper for publications with enduring research value.

ABSTRACT: Perishable acidic paper contains the seeds of its own destruction and has created an enormous preservation problem in libraries. In contrast, alkaline paper offers economic, technological, and societal benefits which have been recognized by scholars, professional organizations and Congressional leaders. The Government Printing Office should be asked to investigate how it can help to stop the brittle book problem at its source by using alkaline paper for government publications.

Background of the Problem

Most printed matter published since the mid-nineteenth century is destined to disintegrate within a lifetime. Industrial manufacturing processes made it possible to meet the exploding demand for paper, but introduced residual acids that cause paper to rot slowly from within, and to crumble over time. Use of acidic paper has inadvertently contributed to the preservation problem that is facing society today. Publications as recent as fifty years old are affected. The number of brittle volumes in libraries, with pages that will break apart as they are turned, is now estimated to be 76 million and expected to rise to 114 million in the next twenty years as collections age. There is really no hope of saving them all. Several major research libraries report that more than one fourth of their books are already so fragile that they are nearly unusable.

Government documents are no different. They are deteriorating at a comparable rate. The records of the government, which should be an enduring chronicle of the nation's culture and activities, are becoming so embrittled that they may soon be useless. Many of the publications at risk are primary research titles that should be available to researchers, such as legislative history documents, cumulations of judicial decisions, and statistical compendia. Because many government titles are issued in parts over time, the progression of embrittlement is obvious in library backfiles, particularly among volumes published before the 1920s. For example, an examination of U.S. Reports in one library revealed that more than half of its 468 volumes are brittle. Similarly, decades of census publications, map series, and reports of research and exploration are crumbling. Tens of thousands of important documentary sources are becoming unreadable to future generations of scholars.

At present, books published between 1860 and 1940 are most affected; however, most modern paper is destined to become brittle over time. Preservation specialists are employing a number of approaches to try to preserve the content of brittle books. The costs of converting text to another format are high. They can outstrip the resources of any single library and require that choices be made concerning which brittle books to preserver

Solving the Problem for the Future

By far the most promising and forward-looking approach is to use alkaline paper for new publications, thus stopping a potential problem at its source. Over the last three decades, alkaline paper has become available in commercial quantities and at competitive prices. Publications produced on alkaline paper will not need deacidification or microfilming, thereby saving money for libraries and the government in the long run. They will last for centuries rather than decades in ordinary library use, without significant deterioration.

It is illogical to continue to print an acidic paper stock. The scope of the embrittlement problem is already too staggering to permit indifference towards issues that we can influence. Publishers and printers should be persuaded to use alkaline paper for the printing of new books, in order to stem the flow of acidic paper into our libraries.

The U.S. Government is the largest publisher in the United States. As the world's largest printer, the Government Printing Office (GPO) can play a leadership role by phasing out the use of acidic paper. This modification promises enormous long-term benefits for scholars, libraries, publishers, " the public at large. First, using alkaline paper will increase the longevity of a large proportion of the yearly output of important printed material. Second, in extending the life of documents, GPO will better fulfill its mission of providing a permanent, public archive of government publications to depository libraries. Third, and perhaps most significant overall, GPO will increase the United States market demand for alkaline paper production, with the large quantities required for government printing. This will stimulate more paper manufacturers to convert to a potentially cheaper and environmentally cleaner alkaline process.

Economic and Quality Advantages of Alkaline Paper

It does not cost inherently more to produce a book on groundwood-free, chemical wood pulp paper that is alkaline than it costs to produce a book on comparable quality paper that is acidic.2 The papermaking industry is slow to change because it is production-oriented, employing an efficient but conservative technology and having a high level of capital investment in the existing plant. However, in the long run, there are economic incentives and societal benefits -associated with making alkaline paper that should ultimately make it more efficient to manufacture.

The alkaline process reduces water consumption and facilitates waste treatment. It adapts more readily to environmental law requirements. It is cleaner and, on balance, less corrosive to machinery, reducing down-time. It saves energy, particularly in the drying cycle. It reduces material costs because a greater proportion of lower cost fillers, such as calcium carbonate, can be used. Such fillers are often cheaper than the wood fiber and high-brightness pigments for which they can partially substitute. The paper can be made stronger so that lighter alkaline paper can be used in place of heavier acidic paper. With greater flexibility possible in the composition of their product, manufacturers can tailor it to accommodate a broad range of aesthetic requirements and production qualities.

There is no evidence that the papermaking industry could not accommodate the potential d for use of alkaline paper in the foreseeable future, were the demand to be expressed. Thirty U.S. mills have at least one alkaline fine-grade paper machine, and at least 30 more are in the trial evaluation stage. Alkaline methods are usually adopted in new paper plants. The most striking proof that acid-free paper is available and affordable is that some publishers are already using it and don't even know it.

The alkaline process in book paper manufacturing is here to stay. It has not grown as rapidly as many had predicted, or would have wished, but it will continue to develop. The driving forces toward future growth are Environmental Protection Agency standards an water pollution, cost of fiber and fillers, efficiency of the process, need to reduce fresh water consumption, and changing energy expenses.

Marketing Advantages

As evidence that alkaline paper has marketing appeal it is notable that two reprinters of law materials offer permanent paper editions of U.S. Reports. These companies are printing the same text and making volumes available as quickly as the GPO version, but on alkaline paper. The primary marketing attraction of this effort is the better-quality alkaline paper, which shows the reprinters' sensitivity to librarians' concerns about paper Embrittlement. Obviously, these reprinters believe that their customers are sufficiently interested in alkaline paper to buy their edition of U.S. Reports, in preference to the GPO edition.

What is the Government s Role?

Why should it be necessary for a private reprinter to take over what should be the responsibility of the Government Printing Office, government agencies, and legislative or judicial bodies to produce high-quality, long-lasting government publications? Why, when Congress is being asked by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and other concerned units of government to help fund efforts designed to conquer the brittle book problem through microfilming, deacidification and other preservation programs, should its own printing office exacerbate the problem by continuing to print volumes an acidic paper? It seems well within the mission of GPO to use alkaline paper for printing the permanent records of government.

The irrationality of continuing to print on acidic paper has been recognized by members of Congress. William H. Natcher, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Hum Services, Education and Related Agencies, noted Congressional concern about the problem of paper deterioration in his keynote address at the January 27, 1987 National Library of Medicine hearing on the use of permanent paper for biomedical literature. He expressed the belief that using more permanent paper in publications can serve as preventive medicine and reduce the embrittlement problem significantly. Senator Bentson introduced a report on the hearing into the April 10, 1987 Congressional Record. He reiterated concerns about the deterioration of scientific literature and identified use of permanent paper as a way of stopping much of the preservation problem at its source.

On March 3, 1987 a hearing was held before the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education on the brittle book problem, with Hon. Pat William presiding, to discuss the progress of national microfilming program. David C. Weber, Director of Stanford University Libraries, Carole F. Huxley, Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Education in the New York State Education Department, and Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress, all pointed out the long-tem advantage of ordering paper for government printing that doesn't carry the seeds of its own destruction.

At the July 14, 1987 confirmation hearings of Dr. James H. Billington as Librarian of Congress, Senator Pell included the issue of how to get the Government Printing Office to use alkaline paper as one of a list of challenges clamoring for early attention.

Why Does Acidic Paper Persist?

Why, when there are so many advantages associated with the use of alkaline paper, do GPO and other major publishers continue to use acidic paper that is destined to deteriorate? One answer is that until recently many publishers and printers were simply not ware of the ongoing disintegration of large portions of the nation's and indeed our civilization's printed record; or of the high cost of preserving information recorded on acidic paper.

Publishers have not demanded alkaline paper vociferously enough for paper mills to identify it as a marketable product lines, although most would probably agree, at least in principle, that use of alkaline paper is a good thing. Minor adjustments, such as achieving compatibility with inks and dyes originally developed for use with acidic paper, have not been an insurmountable problem, yet few publishers --with the exception of the American university presses-have made a commitment to alkaline paper for scholarly publications.

Accordingly, marketing efforts have not targeted publishers whose products would be expected to have a priority for permanence. Alkaline paper is marketed and selected on other virtues, for the most part, such as superior aesthetic characteristics and production properties.

Furthermore, the decision to switch from acid to an alkaline process is now often based on mill economics, because of the advantages of the alkaline process to the manufacture of paper as a commodity. It is notable that not all of the alkaline papermaking capacity is directed at paper for book publishing. Some of it is devoted, for example, to making industrial paperboard, nonwoven fabrics, milk cartons, and converter stock (such as paper for envelopes). Currently, alkaline paper is a standard supply item; however, of paper produced for book publishing purposes, only 25 percent happens to be alkaline.

Increasing consumer knowledge of the importance of using permanent paper for book publishing, and the creation of guidelines for the procurement of alkaline paper are important prerequisites to increasing demand. The first steps are being undertaken by responsible scholarly, professional, and standards-setting organizations.

Standards for Permanent Paper

In 1984, the American National Standards Institute approved a standard for permanent paper for printed library materials, which sets forth reliable specifications for purchasers of high-quality book papers The standard stipulates that permanent paper must have a minimum pH of 7.5, must have at least a 2 percent alkaline reserve as a buffering agent, and that the paper stock must include no groundwood or unbleached pulp. In addition, to ensure reasonable durability of the finished paper, the standard specifies a fold endurance of at least 30 double folds, and a minimum tear resistance.

In addition, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM ) has adopted standards for permanent bond and ledger papers, manifold (carbon copy) papers, papers for office copying machines, and file folders, and is in the process of issuing a "Standard Guide for Permanent Offset and Book Papers." All of these ASTM publications set three levels of quality, the highest of which is "maximum permanence." The four standards specify a minimum pH of 7.5, and the Standard Guide suggests a minimum pH of 6.5, for papers in this highest category, the only one suitable for materials to be retained in libraries and archives for an indefinite period of time.4

Government agencies desirous of using and-free paper had until recently no officially promulgated Joint Committee on Printing (JCP) specification to which to refer, although an unofficial standard has been in draft form for use an a case-by-case basis. A governmental policy on the use of permanent paper could serve as a model for all publishers. Happily, within the next several months the JCP plans to officially adopt a specification for alkaline paper. This specification incorporates the paper quality criteria identified in the ANSI permanent paper standard. As with all JCP specifications, it will include a "use!' statement. This statement will suggest the kinds of publications for which permanent paper is suited.

Publications That Should be Printed on Alkaline Paper

Publications that have enduring value should be printed on alkaline paper. The ANSI standard describes several types of publications which are appropriate candidates for alkaline paper: (1) important works of fiction and nonfiction; (2) scholarly publications, monographs, and reprints; (3) collected editions; (4) encyclopedias, dictionaries, bibliographies, directories, indexes, abstracts and other reference works that require permanent retention; (5) publications intended primarily for the library market; and (6) titles not appropriate for transfer to other formats. Government-sponsored research studies, almanacs, census data, and survey maps qualify as having enduring value within these definitions.

Because of the legal importance of government publications, additional categories of material should be included: (1) publications mandated by law; (2) annual reports; (3) legislative history sources from the House and Senate (documents, reports, hearings); (4) permanent cumulations of judicial, legislative or administrative decisions, orders and opinions, rules and regulations; (5) yearbooks, annual statistical reports; (6) treaty series; (7) advisory committee reports; (8) proceedings of conferences, institutes and advisory boards; and (9) reports, decisions, and conferences concerning domestic and international arbitration. In conclusion, many categories of government publications have permanent value. They should be published on alkaline paper.

Consumer Information Now Available

To increase the awareness and to address the needs of publishers and printers, including GPO, who may want to use alkaline paper but who do not know a great deal about its availability, the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), Z39 Committee, is developing an information kit. The kit will include a list of manufacturers who produce alkaline paper that meets the ANSI standard. The packet will be available before the end of calendar year 1987.

Additionally, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is preparing consumer guidelines covering all aspects of the use of permanent paper, including for book publishing. Responding to the complaint that reliable industry statistics on the subject are not now available, the American Paper Institute is considering the inclusion of data about alkaline papermaking in future industry surveys. This information will greatly assist GPO and other potential buyers of permanent paper by providing them with information about the producers and distributors of all kinds of alkaline paper products.

How GPO Can Expand Its Use of Alkaline Paper

There are a number of ways in which GPO could take a more active role in promoting the use of alkaline paper for government printing. It is desirable to effect the largest-scale conversion possible, in order to help create a market demand that will stimulate more paper mills to convert to an alkaline process; provide an example for private publishers; and benefit scholars, librarians, the Federal and private funders of preservation program, and society at large.

GPO could start by advising agencies, judicial bodies, and Congress of the availability of competitively-priced alkaline paper, its appropriate uses, and its benefits. This is a first step, easily taken by the Public Printer, which could be framed as a memorandum offering an additional product line. Such an approach may have good public relations potential, but it cannot be relied upon to have uniform results.

A more proactive approach would be for GPO to publish on alkaline paper a "library edition' of publications for depository libraries. At the very least, permanent editions on alkaline paper should be available to regional depository libraries and libraries not served by a regional depository, because these libraries are directed by title 44 of the U.S. Code, section 1911 to "retain Government publications permanently in either printed form or in microfacsimile form..." (emphasis supplied). It is clearly within the intent of the law to encourage the Public Printer to take such an action, because title 44, section 1914 empowers the Public Printer to "use any measures he considers necessary for the economical and practical implementation of this chapter [on the depository library program]."

As important as it is for depository libraries to receive high-quality, long-lasting documents for public use, arguably other libraries and users of government publications have an equally legitimate interest in purchasing better quality publications in place of the acidic paper publications now produced by GPO and a myriad of other publishers. GPO might offer them a choice of paper (acidic or alkaline) and let the buyer decide how long the publication has usefulness. If there is a cost associated with better paper [it] could be passed on to the purchaser.

As an interim measure, GPO might limit the use of alkaline paper to certain categories of publications, rather than upgrade the standards for all items on the classified list of government publications for selection by depositories. Selection could be compatible with the guidelines presented in the "use" section of the JCP's alkaline paper specification. All editions of titles in these categories might be printed on alkaline paper, since they have recognized permanent value, thereby extending the lifespan of highly significant titles and extending the benefits to all purchasers.

A more expansive approach would not necessarily be more expensive. GPO could transfer to alkaline paper all titles already published on high-quality, but acidic, chemical wood pulp paper. This solution would entail no extra cost for materials. A cost differential would arise only if the relatively small number of publications currently published on ground wood pulp were upgraded; for such titles, it may be desirable for library editions to be provided. It should be possible to project the quantity of paper and the consequent costs involved in such a proposal, because the Public Printer submits, to the Joint Committee on Printing, at the beginning of each session of Congress estimates of the quantity of paper of all descriptions that will be required for public printing and binding during the ensuing year, as mandated by section 508 of title 44 of the U.S. Code.

The problem associated with any of the purposefully limited approaches are practical as well as conceptual. Unnecessary costs may be incurred when the same text is printed in duplicate editions. Even an approach limited to certain categories of publications may, by increasing the types of paper kept in inventory, involve higher costs. The selection of publications for special editions and estimates of the number needed may appear reasoned when first made, but realistically it is not possible to foresee who in a hundred years might be interested in what information, where, and for what purpose; or to assure that the information will be available under the proper circumstances. Ultimately, universal use of alkaline paper might be a reasonable goal for GPO to pursue. Implementation could be accomplished in phases. Should demand for alkaline paper begin to outstrip supply, procedures of varying formality could be devised to alert manufacturers to the situation, in support of market signals that would also undoubtedly begin to emerge.


Based on the available evidence, it appears to be advantageous for the Government Printing Office to take every appropriate action to substitute permanent, alkaline paper for acidic paper in printing the publications of the Federal government.

Representatives of the depository library community request that the Depository Library Council urge the Government Printing Office to explore this matter in depth, taking into account quality, economy, market, and other relevant factors; and to consider ways that responsibility for such a program could be assumed within a reasonable period of time. Following its thorough investigation, the Government Printing Office should be requested to report its findings including any considerations that place the reaching of these objectives outside its authority to act. Appropriate complementary avenues might then be pursued to further the goal of increasing use of permanent paper for government publications.

References And Footnotes

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