The 1991 Annual Report of the Commission on Preservation and Access quotes James McPherson, Princeton historian, testifying in support of the National Endowment for the Humanities preservation program. In describing his research experiences, the Pulitzer-prize winning author creates an indelible picture most librarians and researchers find true:

…the shock of seeing some of these irreplaceable sources literally fall apart as I read them almost spoiled the pleasures of research. My years in graduate school came at the dawn of the microfilm age. Very few of the sources I used had been microfilmed. I read them in the original, just as they had come from the printer nearly a century earlier. This hands-on contact with materials that had been handled by the people I was studying was thrilling, but it was also potentially disastrous. Many of these…had been printed on paper made by the then-new wood pulp process. As I turned these precious but highly acidic pages, some of them tore and crumbled in my hands no matter how carefully and delicately I handled them.

I was horrified by the experience of damaging, perhaps destroying the very sources that nurtured my knowledge. Here I was in one of the world’s greatest libraries defacing its rare and valuable resources! ….Intellectually I know why these pages were crumbling, knew that it was not my fault. But emotionally, I could not escape the feelings of guilt and shame.

Imagine examining an original design drawn by Paulding Farnam, a gifted Tiffany designer, disintegrate before your eyes, a possibility faced by Janet Zapata, former Tiffany & Co. archivist.[1] Anna Miller, researching her latest book, Cameos Old & New, described her research experience on the subject of glyptic art very matter-of-factly:

All the old books on the subject of glyptic arts were in the process of crumbling. They were most often books from the early, mid and late 19th century. Book spines were loose or off; pages were foxed and beginning to become very fragile. Gloves were needed for the most part to access the books.

Dona Dirlam, Head Librarian at the Gemological Institute of America, adds to the overall picture by describing some of the books found in The Sinkankas Collection bequest:

…cracking when opened, spines breaking, pages coming loose and crumbling, musty smells and insects.[2]

Other librarians and researchers describe similar concerns about material printed on acid paper in the last 150 years. The brittle book problem is common and seemingly democratic. No specialty has been overlooked and the “slow fires” of self-destruction remain a continuing problem as publishers continue to print on acid paper.

The decision-making process is even more important when perhaps only 20 percent of the books can be reformatted. The numbers lend an air of unreality to a very serious problem, a problem that is staggering to imagine in the context of spiralling costs of bibliographic access, cataloging, shelving, storage and conservation, as well as the public or patron services that all are part of the library’s already overburdened budget.

Those who have not seen a brittle book may believe that once a book is written and published, it is a permanent record of knowledge that requires little or no maintenance. But the very nature of a book with acidic paper is fatally flawed. Such a book is constantly self-destructing, along with the information it contains. Preservation of this information is jeopardized.

The Task Force on the Economics of Access to Library Materials (American Library Association Committee on Technical Services – ALCTS) in their June 26, 1990 report, addresses the more complicated, related issues in general terms:

…new fields of inquiry appear regularly, adding to the riches of the accumulated research record–an yet less an less of that record is available to be researched each year. It is especially important that those who seek solutions to this problem–librarians, publishers, vendors, library users–define it accurately … it is a critical problem for the research and educational communities, whose members are deprived of ready access to the information they need….

As the amount of information burgeons, the ability to house, shelve and conserve that information is being strained. The existing core of materials already collected is in jeopardy from within, caused by the unavoidable innate characteristics of the materials that determine the rate of disintegration.[3] Environmental factors and use patterns also can place a great deal of strain on a book, speeding the deterioration.

A key concern of jewelry historians identified in this study is access to scholarly materials. A number of those interviewed provided examples of limited access related to the brittle books problem. As fragile books must be protected from overuse, awaiting a conservation treatment or reformatting, they often by necessity are less physically available to scholars. Jewelry historians also note a further access problem. While many libraries are prepared to make their information accessible and are taking conservation and preservation steps, some records are not entered into an accessible database that would permit the researcher to discover them. These lost books are out of sight, out of mind and out of circulation.[4][5]