Many library books are slowly being "burned up" by acids in the paper that in time will reduce the texts to fragments.
Others have bindings and covers that were never meant to withstand repeated tugging from library stacks. Still others were victims of publishers' shortcuts that reduce durability.Even the mere presence of dust eventually damages the books.
Finding solutions to these problems occupies the on-the-job and many of the off-the-job thoughts of Randy Silverman, a trained rare-book conservator at Brigham Young University.
Silverman oversees long-term preservation of nearly 3 million volumes, including documents, photographs, sound recordings, magnetic and optical media in the circulating collection of the Harold B. Lee Library.
It's an intimidating job. Silverman estimates that a quarter of a million of the books in the library need repairs, and he and his staff of 18 can handle only 13,000 in-house repairs and 15,000 commercial repairs a year.
BYU and other universities have aggressive preservation and maintenance programs for rare book collections. They try to maintain these materials in their original condition because of their historic significance. (By BYU definition, rare books are those whose value reaches at least $200.)
But Silverman's focus is not limited to rare or valuable books. He is one of the few people in the country who also does repairs on the "middle range" books in the regular collection, while not compromising conservation standards, said Jane Dalrymple-Hollo, assistant rare book conservator at BYU.
Silverman uses his "personal judgment as an informed source" to decide how books will be handled. At times he creates techniques. Recently he developed a sound but aesthetically pleasing binding for the Grove Dictionary of Music so the much used reference text can withstand an exceptional amount of wear.
At other times commercial repair is desirable. "I'm certainly not against sending books out for repair when it's appropriate," he said. "BYU binds many volumes commercially when a mass form of treatment will not jeopardize the integrity of the material. However, such treatment has its limitations and if not used judiciously can short-change a book.
"Take, for example, this 1830 volume bound in an original publisher's book," he said. "Though simple and unimpressive to look at, it was published shortly after book-cloth was adapted for use commercially. To simply cover its broken binding with a contemporary commercial binding would lessen its historical significance as an object."
Another book was once owned by artist Mahonri Young and bears his signature on the inside cover. "In the process of rebinding this, one would hardly want to lose that autograph."
Sometimes Silverman decides against repairing a book and builds a protective box for it. If he determines that the book is important simply for its informational value and physically beyond repair, he may have it photocopied onto acid-free paper.
He prefers this method to microfilming, because he believes the average user is happier with a bound volume. "Microfilm is a valuable reformatting medium because it can be produced to archival standards, but the average patron would not enjoy curling up in front of the fire with a microfilm reader."
In any preservation process, Silverman takes the long-term view. "I don't want to do anything to a book that makes it impossible to repair again in the future. The Harold B. Lee is a research library. We expect some of the books to be here indefinitely and don't want the repairs of 1988 to be the despair of book conservators in the 21st century."
That's only one of his challenges. He is continually faced with modern books whose publishers used short cuts to speed production and cut costs.
Eighteenth-century books had text blocks sewn on cords. By the late 19th century, some publishers used staples to hold books together, eliminating sewing from the bookbinding process altogether. Now the staples are rusting. Today, most books are held together exclusively with adhesives, and they break down after very little use.
Also shortening a book's life are the weak cloth or paper-covered bindings publishers churn out. They are fine for the individual collector but do not hold up well in a library setting, Silverman said.
"The rigors of circulation, especially the book return process, causes severe damage to these weak materials," he explains. He said they are working on designing a non-damaging book return unit with funding from the Council on Library Resources.
Silverman combines new technology with centuries-old processes. He developed a method for printing book labels using a laser printer, a Macintosh computer and paper imported from Japan. At the same time, he regularly repairs books with sewing techniques perfected by 15th-century guildsmen.
But there is one insidious enemy he and other library conservators find difficult to combat: the chemical deterioration of the actual paper on which the books are printed.
To meet the need for massive output brought about by industrialization, the majority of books printed during the 19th and 20th centuries were produced on acidic paper that is now becoming brittle. The chemical deterioration is slow but inevitable, and it causes the paper eventually to break with a simple fold of the page.
A recent public television documentary said 25 percent of the 13 million volumes in the Library of Congress are already brittle.
Some solutions exist, but they are extremely expensive. A process called "deacidification" can neutralize acids in the paper, but it is a hands-on treatment requiring individual attention to books. Also, it fails to restore the physical strength of the paper.