The Alkaline Paper Advocate

Volume 1, Number 4
Oct 1988

Why Collections Deteriorate: Putting Acidic Paper in Perspective

by Ellen McCrady

It is now well established that the paper of the last 130 years has been notably short-lived. This is true not only for the United States but for the whole world, except where traditional methods have survived. It did not decline in permanence all at once, though. This is shown by Figure 5 in the Yale Survey ("Percentage of Books Surveyed that Were Brittle ... by Date and Countries"),1 in which the curves for British, German and American books overlap and interweave, increasing at about the same rate from 1800 to 1890, peaking gradually between the Civil War and the First World War (when over 90% of the books were produced on paper that is now brittle), and coming back down to near zero again with books produced recently, which of course are still strong. The shape of the humped graph shows that quality began to decline before 1850 and continued at least until 1890. If this survey were repeated 50 years from now, or even 70 years from now, it might show a high plateau from 1870 to 1950 or so, instead of a hump, because all of the papers made in that period would have aged and become brittle by then. Or almost all.

It is also well established, but not so well known, that the permanence of paper had been declining long before 1850. William J. Barrow published the results of his research on early papers in the second, fifth and seventh of his little monographs in the series Permanence/Durability of the Book,2 and Verner Clapp incorporated the Barrow findings in his very readable "The Story of Permanent/Durable Book Paper, 1115-1970."3 Most advances in papermaking for the last 340 years have shortened the life of paper produced by the new methods introduced, but the worst influence has been the use of alum-rosin sizing, which required the use of more alum and the manufacture of paper at a lower pH than before.

The decline of paper permanence has not been just noticed recently; chemists, librarians and government committees have been chewing away at this problem since the first half of the 1800s. It has taken a great deal of energy to define this problem properly and find a remedy, but we have a pretty good handle on it now. (Of course, the future always holds surprises, and the standards committees' work is never done.) It is time to catch our breath, look around, and put the whole issue into historical perspective.

There are seven major trends that are making it harder to preserve books and records today, regardless of what kind of paper they are printed or written on: population growth, the explosive growth of knowledge and information, the growth of governments, democracy and literacy, prosperity, new technology and industrialization.

Population growth. The world's population has been increasing exponentially since about 1650 (Fig. 1), not just in India and China, but in the West as well. By and large, this means that more people are chasing a diminishing number of early books, at the same time that they are producing more new books. Rare book rooms are having to make more copies of their most-used books, so that the originals will not become worn out with use, and high-quality reproductions are made of popular "treasures" like the Book of Kells and the Domesday Book to satisfy the demand for access to then. Unfortunately, funds are always short and only a few of the most valuable books can be protected from user damage by those means. One of the reasons funds are so short is that so much of the institution's budget has to go toward caring for the new books and records produced by all the new people.


Figure 1. World population growth, 1650 to 1982 (from World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1988)

Explosive growth of knowledge and information. Ever since scientific journals were invented in the mid-1600s, scientists have been complaining that they can't keep up with the literature. So have professionals in other fields, with good reason. Although the population doubles only every 50 years or so, the number of scientific journals doubles in only 15 years, and has been doing this since the beginning, so that there are a million times as many in any given year as there were 300 years before.4 Popular magazines seem to follow the same law. Libraries, which are set up as repositories of all this knowledge and information, generally have static or slowly increasing budgets, and are able to take in a smaller percentage of it every year. Many of them have little or no money left over to preserve what they have. Increasingly they are specializing in a limited number of subject areas, with the result that they have to borrow from each other a lot when readers want books not in those areas, and this wears the books out (going through the postal service, getting cut when the package is sliced open, being handled by 15 different people in the two libraries, and so on).

Growth of governments. No one seems to know why, but governments seem to increase in size as the square of the population, which gives both taxpayers and archives a problem similar to that of the libraries.

Democracy and literacy. These are two different factors which act together to increase access to collections. Jefferson thought that education was a cornerstone of democracy and it certainly is hard to alkaline how democracy could work if people couldn't read. At any rate, there is a strong tendency in this country to have open stacks, to promote reading, to exhibit books, and generally to remove barriers between books and readers. In other countries not yet affected by this tendency, the books are often in much finer condition, especially if the climate is cool and the stacks are unheated or kept at a lower temperature. (When people are allowed to browse in the stacks, the area has to be heated and well-lit, which deteriorates books.) Archives do not have as large a problem with over-use, but they do sometimes display a document to death.

Prosperity. In a society where books can be bought for a dollar or two, throwaway printed material is common, and much information rapidly becomes obsolescent, contempt for the written word is common. People underline library books and tear out the parts of library journals they want to take home with them. They no longer keep their own library in cases with glass doors, or dust their books regularly. rare of books and simple bookbinding methods are no longer taught in the public schools, as they were 50 years ago. Even librarians, until recently, were not taught about the physical book in library school, and even now this kind of instruction is rare. The total effect of all this is a high mortality among books. Some may argue that private collections of books and records do not matter, because we are not depending on them as we are on the collections in institutions; but in fact they do matter. A large portion of present-day libraries and archives was once in private hands, and there is no reason to expect any change in the drift of private collections into public institutions.

New technology. New inventions and better ways to do things are certainly nice, but in several ways they have worked against preservation of collections. Central heating, for instance, is bad for paper. (The rule of thumb is that the rate of deterioration doubles with every 10° rise in temperature. Some people say it's 10° Fahrenheit, and others say it's 10° Celsius; they are both right, because it all depends on the chemical stability of the paper. Unstable paper like newsprint deteriorates readily with a smaller increase in temperature.) Air conditioning is good for paper materials if it runs continuously during hot weather and does not break down and drip water on the collections. Indoor plumbing is very convenient, but all those pipes are the cause of hundreds of minor and major floods in institutional collections every year. Fortunately, wet books and papers can now be dried by freeze drying techniques, but it all costs money and a certain percentage of item are lost or significantly damaged in every incident. Book delivery systems based on conveyor belts speed books from stack to user, but chew up books from. time to time; copiers help immeasurably in education and the spread of knowledge, but they are hard on books. Microfilming will preserve the text of a brittle book, but in this country it is customary to cut off the bark of the book to speed operations (in Europe, the book is generally saved). The list could be extended indefinitely.

Industrialization. This is the source, and sometimes also the result, of several of the other factors in this list. Air pollution, however, is a major cause of deterioration of collections, and is the direct result of industrialization. Car exhaust is the biggest factor, and can take most of the blame for the poor condition of the books in the New York Public Library, where until recently the only way to keep cool in the summer was to open the windows, admitting the exhaust from cars idling at stop lights. Fifty percent of NYPL's books are brittle, the highest proportion in the country.

The effect of all these historical trends and social conditions is either to increase the physical use of the materials, or to cause them to deteriorate faster on the shelf. Either way, they are more vulnerable to handling, and eventually they will become unusable because parts of the book are lost or the document has become fragile and illegible. To counter these effects, we have to use tougher paper--paper strong enough to take the handling it will get both now and in the future, and chemically stable and buffered to withstand centuries of heat, pollution and other stress factors in the storage environment.

The more traditional preservation activities--protection from insects, mold and disasters, regulation of the environment, and treatment of damaged or deteriorated items --can only be performed on site, or by contractual arrangement with the institution. By contrast, the production and use of permanent/durable paper is a form of preservation that can be carried out by people not attached to a particular institution, and the benefits continue indefinitely.


1. Gay Walker et al. "The Yale Survey: A Large-Scale Study of Book Deterioration in the Yale University Library," College and Research Libraries 46: 111-132, March 1985.

2. W. J. Barrow Research Laboratory, Inc. Permanence/

Durability of the Book II. Test Data of Naturally Aged Papers (1964); V. Strength and Other Characteristics of Book Papers 1800-1899 (1967); and VII. Physical and Chemical Properties of Book Papers, 1507-1949 (1974).

3. Verner W. Clapp. "The Story of Permanent/Durable Book-paper, 1115-1970," Restaurator Supplement #3, 1972. 51 pages.

4. Derek J. de Solla Price. Little Science, Big Science... and Beyond. Columbia University Press, New York, 1986. Pages 6-8.

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