Virtually every medium of expression is threatened today by the natural forces of deterioration. The destruction of works recorded on paper, film, photographic prints, paint on canvas, phonorecords, video and audio tapes, and even optical and digital disks is proceeding at a pace that threatens to destroy most of the artistic and intellectual works of the past century and a half. The movie industry has been particularly concerned about the preservation of the film records of the twentieth century, and many of the newer media such as optical disk appear to have a relatively short life.4 But film can be converted to videotape or optical disk, and digital data can be reproduced with no degradation, provided the copy is made before the original deteriorates too far. Art historians are justifiably concerned about the loss of original artwork as well as the threatened deterioration of photoarchives, and for them, the solutions are less obvious because nothing can re- create the original. Overall, however, there is general agreement that the problem of brittle books is a crisis even more urgent than that in the arts.5
The deterioration of printed materials, books and serials printed on paper since the middle of the 19th century, is by far the most vexing of the preservation problems. It is a problem made more complicated by the fact that the deterioration has already progressed to the point where the materials are no longer simply threatened, many have already been lost, and others crumble at the slightest touch. Moreover, the sheer magnitude of the problem is daunting: hundreds of millions of volumes have been printed, and most of those are in various states of disrepair. To complicate things further, the materials in question are scattered all over the world. Library collections overlap, but even small libraries contain unique items. As a result, there is an urgent need for a major cooperative effort to preserve everything of value while avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort.
A. The Cause of the Problem
Virtually everything written or printed on paper since the middle of the 19th century is self-destructing at a rate that will soon make it unusable. Interestingly, older papers are actually more permanent and in better condition than those produced in the last hundred years. The cause of the problem lies in modern methods of paper manufacture.
Among the expanding population of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, advances in medicine, industrial invention, and new patterns of social interaction led to educational reform and increased literacy.6 An increasing demand for reading material coincided with two innovations–mechanical printing and mechanized papermaking7–which accelerated the growth of mass communications through new forms of cheap publication like books, tracts, newspapers, and encyclopedias.8 Mechanization, aided by the increasing use of steam power from burning coal, made it possible for paper manufacturers and printers to meet the rising demands of the population.
The increased production of paper, however, placed new demands on the suppliers of raw materials. For centuries, the source of the essential chemical constituent of paper, cellulose, was primarily linen and cotton rags. Unfortunately, the methods of rag collection remained unchanged during the age of expansion. The itinerant ragman and wholesale rag merchant could not come close to meeting the tremendous and unexpected demand for the raw material of paper.9 Further aggravating the supply problem was the reduction of a major source of rags–the waste product of the textile industry. The mechanization of that industry rendered it more efficient, and thereby reduced dramatically the amount of waste. By the mid-nineteenth century, the pressure from market forces stimulated the search for a new source of cellulose–a source eventually found in wood pulp.
Following decades of experiments with alternatives to rags by paper manufacturers, the German F.G. Keller patented an invention for the use of ground wood for paper pulp in 1840.10 But this revolution in papermaking brought with it a new problem, since the wood pulp fibers that form the paper mesh were substantially shorter and weaker than the fibers in rags. In addition, certain chemical compounds11 used in the manufacturing process remain in unpurified wood pulp and then degrade to form acids and peroxides that promote the aging of the paper. Newspapers and less expensive books have been printed on paper made of unpurified ground wood pulp, thereby rendering them susceptible to especially rapid deterioration. Yet newsprint continues to be popular because of its low price and high absorbency, which make it an economical and efficient medium for high speed presses. Many important documents are printed on such paper, including daily newspapers, the Federal Register, the Code of Federal Regulations, and the daily Congressional record.
The invention of wood pulp paper was the first step in creating short-lived paper. But an even more significant problem was the introduction of a new size in paper manufacture. “Size” is a chemical applied to the cellulose fiber of pulp to help prevent ink from spreading.12 A new size called alum-rosin became popular by the mid-nineteenth century.13 It was economical, easy to use, and produced an excellent product. But it also had a serious effect on the permanence of the paper.
At the molecular level, cellulose fibers resemble a chain. This fiber chain gives paper its strength. But alum-rosin sizing reacts with available moisture to produce sulfuric acid, which in turn reacts with the chemical groups in the chain and eventually causes breaks in the structure.14 Thus the fibers are weakened and the paper becomes brittle. This process of deterioration is accelerated by the presence of high temperatures, humidity and atmospheric pollutants.15
These modern methods of paper-making bring with them the seeds of the eventual self- destruction of the paper produced. Although techniques have been developed to stop further deterioration of the paper, there is no known way to repair the damage that has already occurred to make brittle paper flexible again. Such restoration is unlikely because it would involve repairing the damage–restoring the cellulose chains–that occurred at the molecular level.16
Because for now we can only arrest the damage, not repair the damage already done, the eventual loss of the documents contained on paper appears to be inevitable. It is therefore imperative that some means be found to use modern technology to preserve the material by copying it to alternate formats.
B. The Magnitude of the Problem
The problem of paper deterioration affects virtually everything printed from the middle of the nineteenth century until today. To understand more precisely how much material is currently at risk, and how much should be converted to other formats, Robert Hayes did a study in 1987 to estimate the magnitude, costs, and benefits of preserving brittle books in the research libraries of the United States.17
The Hayes study concludes that there are approximately 305 million volumes in the nation’s research libraries, and that approximately 25 percent of them, or 76 million volumes, are currently at risk. Making some further assumptions about the extent of further deterioration over the next 20 years (38 million more volumes) and the extent of overlap among collections (10 libraries hold any given title), the author concludes that there are 11.4 million unique items to be preserved. Further assuming that some have already been filmed and only one third of the rest will be saved, Hayes concludes that the conversion effort will total approximately 3.3 million volumes.
Turning to the cost, Hayes estimates that it will take approximately $358 million, or about $108 per volume, simply to make the initial conversion of the material. He believes that those costs can be shared by the institutions themselves, the Federal and state governments, foundations, and the commercial sector.
Using similar methodology, the Commission on Preservation and Access has determined that the number of volumes to be preserved ranges from 3.3 million to 10 million. They believe that the lower number is “an estimate of the minimum number of volumes to be saved on microfilm if the core of important holdings is not to be lost. Were funding available, it would be important to save as many of the entire 10 million as possible.” Their estimate of the cost is somewhat lower than that of the Hayes study, since they concluded that the project can be undertaken for $270 million including the development of a central system for retrieval and distribution of needed items. For 3.3 million volumes, the unit cost would be approximately $82 per volume.18
Both of these studies are built around a large number of assumptions. However, they do make clear that the problem is a large one, with an immediate need to save (i.e., copy) at least 3.3 million volumes and possibly as many as 10 million volumes. The cost for this effort is likely to be at least $250 million and could reach as much as $1 billion.
C. The Commission on Preservation and Access
In response to such seemingly insurmountable problems, the Council on Library Resources created a Committee on Preservation and Access19 in 1984. Composed of library directors, university officers, and scholars, the Committee was charged “to develop a realistic plan to preserve large quantities of library materials and to find ways to encourage action.”20 The Committee conducted a number of studies and met several times before issuing its final report in 1986.
The final report of the Committee urged purposeful, resolute, and efficient movement toward a solution. The brittle books problem, it said, “will not be solved by accident. The scale is too great, the cost too large, and the setting too complex.” In order to create a coordinating structure for the effort, the Committee recommended the creation of a Commission on Preservation and Access and a National Advisory Council on Preservation. The Commission, with paid staff, was to develop plans (including funding plans) and procedures to establish and carry out a collaborative brittle book preservation program. It was also expected to encourage research into preservation issues and to promote access to preserved materials.21
The Commission held its first meeting in April of 1986, and developed an ambitious plan to achieve its objectives. Enlisting the support of many of the nation’s largest research libraries and the Library of Congress (L.C.), the Commission proposed a 20-year program to microfilm the contents of over 3 million brittle volumes. In 1989, Congress authorized increased funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities to significantly expand the activities of its Office of Preservation. The multi-year preservation plan that NEH has submitted to Congress includes as its major component enhanced support for projects to microfilm brittle books and serials. The goal of the NEH initiative is to raise the rate of preservation microfilming over the next five years to a level that will enable the country to preserve the intellectual content of three million volumes by 2009.
The Commission and the libraries with which it is working will not be content to stop with the simple conversion of the material to another format. They are exploring the development of a central distribution facility to retrieve items as needed, and to reproduce them in film, fiche, or paper. Eventually, they may convert the documents again, to digital format for electronic storage and distribution.
The ultimate vision is the existence of a collective knowledge base, in digitized format, from which institutions and individuals can obtain information in a variety of formats to serve the scholarly objectives and programs….This initial system would exist with the expectation that storage, access, and service enhancements would evolve with the increasing use of technology by scholars, and with the expanded availability of network capabilities to the research community.22
The ultimate goal is to create a large electronic “library” which scholars and libraries worldwide could use, not only to read documents, but also to produce subsequent copies if desired. The scholar could locate an article in a serial, and direct the article to his or her high speed printer or to a disk. Similarly, the college library that wanted to replace a deteriorated run of serials in its collection could have them reproduced in film or could have them printed on acid-free paper and bound to replace the ones falling apart on the shelf. It is even possible that this electronic library would, in time, replace existing research libraries as we know them because unless those libraries replace their collections as they deteriorate, they will soon consist only of current materials (materials printed on acid free paper from the 1980’s on) and rare older materials (printed before the 1820’s or 30’s). There will be a substantial gap of materials printed on paper for the 150 years or so in between.
Carrying out such a mission will plainly involve making multiple copies of each work. The first will be made when the works are converted to film. A master copy will be stored and another copy will be used as the working copy. Subsequent copies to be sold or converted to electronic format will be the third copy. If the works in electronic form are then made available to users or libraries by display, downloading, or printing on paper, yet another “copy” has been made. Some of these “copies” may not result in tangible paper or film products.
From the earliest days, the Commission has been concerned about the copyright implications of the brittle books preservation program. Although much of the material is in the public domain, some is not. Moreover, it is not always easy to determine which is which. Without protection, libraries participating in the program may run the risk that copyright owners may wish to assert a claim for some or all of the copying.
The library and archives community is, therefore, anxious to move forward with the preservation program with reasonable efficiency while minimizing the potential exposure to copyright claims and litigation. To do so, the Commission and its constitutents need to know on which works they can move forward, where there are likely to be problems with copyright owners, and how best to resolve those problems and minimize the risk. If a legislative solution is required, they want to begin discussions with the Congress. The balance of this paper will explore these issues, define their parameters, and, hopefully, begin to move the discussion toward a resolution.