Book Preservation: How to Restore Old Books

Stack of Books
Stack of Books | Source

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Where to go to Preserve Books

Did you know that some libraries offer services where there is someone that specializes in preserving old books? For example, the Mortvedt Library at Pacific Lutheran University has one person in charge of preserving the libraries books by repairing each one that comes down to her office. Luckily, she's willing to do the same thing for books from personal collections at a very low price, depending on the amount of damage.

Book Conservation

Abby Smith, member of the Council on Library and Information Resources, says that “recorded knowledge is as fragile as the medium on which it is recorded, and as enduring as the human resolve to transmit it.” After the brittle book crisis caused by acidic paper used in the industrial age, libraries began to consider the permanence of different materials and formats as well as their chemical and physical structure. In the archives alone, the voluminous size of this section makes it difficult to identify all preservation issues. There are many ways materials are or might be used and the frequency of preservation problems makes it impossible to deal with each individual issue.

According to Jan Paris, a conservator at the University of North Carolina, conservation is “the application of techniques and materials to chemically stabilize and physically strengthen items in the collection.” Basically, the goal of preservation is to save materials for future use through a wide variety of acts of conservation. These acts can vary from physically protecting books from harm with architecture or meticulously repairing them to prevent further damage.

There are many issues that are associated with the preservation of recorded materials as well as many different basic practices involved. More than a quarter of all volumes held by research libraries are brittle and soft and at risk of disintegration and nearly 80 million books in American research libraries are threatened with destruction. This is why it is an important topic to learn and discuss as anyone can help efforts even with the simplest of acts.

In libraries throughout the world, there is more deterioration and endangered materials than can be preserved so libraries have to determine what should be preserved and what should be allowed to deteriorate. This is done by archivists and librarians primarily. They make their decisions based on intellectual content, physical aspects, and the current condition of each item. These choices are made on an item to item basis once materials are identified as deteriorated either physically or chemically.

After it is decided what is to be preserved, there are four major factors in the environment that books or other materials are held in that are taken into account for their conservation. Many assume that buildings alone protect materials from nature and that books have some kind of regenerative powers. However, it is always possible for even the most unlikely outside factors to sneak their way in and affect the materials.

Once any damage occurs, it is cumulative and irreversible so there is no way of getting the book back to its original condition. The environmental factors that are taken into consideration are temperature, humidity, light, and pollutants. These are important in coming up with a building design, preservation plan, and determining the costs of preservation for each library.

Temperature and Book Preservation

The most serious form of paper deterioration is from chemical reactions. Temperature is one basic element taken into consideration because of how most chemical reactions speed up at higher temperatures. For example, lowering the temperature from 77°F to 68°F will more than double the time required for paper to lose half of its properties. Since the lower the temperature, the longer any paper will last, most books are kept in cold places like basements. For many libraries, lower temperature limit is dictated by cost, comfort, and condensation instead of keeping it at a standard temperature for preservation purposes. This is why windows are a very important aspect of building plans for libraries because they can affect the temperature of the building and make it difficult at times to manage temperature or humidity.

University of Michigan Library Card Catalogue
University of Michigan Library Card Catalogue | Source

Protecting Books From Humidity

Humidity is the next environmental factor taken into consideration. Relative humidity affects the moisture content of a book or other record. This is important when considering that most records are hygroscopic, which means they take up and give off moisture in response to ambient relative humidity. The equilibrium moisture content (EMC) is affected in part by the hygroscopicity and temperature of the surrounding environment but mostly by the humidity in the air. As the EMC decreases, many organic materials shrink. Higher moisture in the environment means an increased chemical deterioration of organic materials. Humidity above 65-70% leads to insect and fungal deterioration while humidity below 30% causes materials to lose flexibility which leads to fracturing.

Fluctuations in relative humidity are more damaging than constant. This is why minimizing all fluctuations in the environment is more important than keeping it at a precise level. It is suggested that humidity is maintained within 3% at all times. The optimum relative humidity is 50-55% for books and manuscripts. Lower humidity within this range increases the longevity of paper, photographic, and magnetic materials.

Light and Book Deterioration

One basic generalization made about damage caused by light is that the shorter the wavelength of radiation, the greater potential for damaging collections. Reducing the intensity of visible light or the length of exposure or both are necessary to reduce damage. It is almost completely eliminated by filtering out the blue spectrum but this is not normally practical. The results of damage caused by light include fading or color change in inks and dyes and the reduction of strength of materials like paper, textiles, and leather. The duration and severity of exposure that a material is allowed to receive is based on the sensitivity of the material. Many times, books are kept out of sight in basements or attics that receive little to no light so that they can be preserved longer. If any of the materials are ever needed, they are taken out for those individual uses but never kept out on a shelf. For the most part, books and other materials are simply kept away from windows or direct sunlight.

Protecting Books From Pollutants

There are two airborne pollutants that are important to acknowledge in the preservation of books, which are categorized as particulates or gases. Particulates are particles or minute droplets. They include dust accumulation and soiling. Cleaning particulates is costly and incurs wear and tear. It also encourages mildew and chemical deterioration.

Gases include sulfur dioxide, ozone, and oxides of nitrogen. Vegetable tanned leather and wood pulp paper are particularly vulnerable to sulfur dioxide. Ozone is internally generated indoors by things like photocopiers and laser printers. Gases cause more serious damage than particulates, which includes fading and discoloration. They also break down the molecules that give materials such as paper, fabrics, and leather their strength.

Cost for Conserving Books

Deterioration, once it occurs is irreversible. However, when it comes to maintaining the optimum environment for preservation, cost is one major inescapable issue.

Even if a book spent most of its life in "good" conditions, the life expectancy of any material is reduced by any period of poorer conditions. The issue then comes down to whether or not a material should be copied or provided with an optimum environment. The most cost-effective answer is to provide it with a good environment. This also helps preserve the visual values that cannot be copied and the artifactual values that cannot be restored once fully deteriorated.

Formal, published standards are important so that those responsible for preserving collections have authoritative support to back up their claims. They must be flexible enough to apply to different climate, technical, economic, and functional situations. If they were too loose, decisions would be made based on what is cheaper instead of what is best so conditions would end up further away from an optimum conservation environment.

Micro vs Macro Book Preservation Treatments

While each of these environmental factors are essential to take into consideration when helping to preserve books, it is also important to know some other issues that come in to play with these factors. Different treatments for the preservation and conservation of books and other materials fall under two categories.

The first is called “macro.” This category includes treatments that affect many or all holdings that a library has. This includes climate controls, filtered lighting, expanding utilization of acid-free paper by publishers, and any initial preempting preservation practices increasing the initial durability and strength of library materials.

The second category is called “micro.” These are piece-level treatments to conserve and restore individual documents. One example of this would be transferring page images or intellectual content from impermanent to permanent paper or from paper to microfilm. The different environmental concerns listed in the previous article fall under the “macro” category.

Protect Your Own Books With a Cover

National Awareness For Old Books

Just as librarians have had to make many decisions on what can and cannot be preserved and how, the fact that preservation is such a large-scale problem has grown to national awareness. This rising awareness of the issue of preservation is important because this means that funds can continue to go to libraries to help them maintain the necessary environment to conserve materials that we would not want to lose. There has been an increase in preservation programs within research, academic, and public libraries as many individuals, institutions, and organizations contribute actively to the development and growth of efforts to save America’s intellectual heritage as documented on paper and other media.

Even though it is not centralized or systematically organized, it is flexible, multifaceted, and opportunistic. Much of the funding comes from federal sources or national foundations. Two major centers for scientific research on preservation and conservation are federal institutions. Three principle federal sources for preservation grants are the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH),National Historic Publications and Records Commission, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

These grants have a large effect on how much is preserved. Conservation and restoration of artifacts and the appropriate treatment for each item are considered the responsibility of individual libraries. Treatments must meet each library’s immediate needs and benefit the local clientele.

It is said that microfilming is today’s preservation of choice since preservation grants require film copies to be available at a cost. Research made by Harvard says that average costs for deacidification versus microfilming averages at $6-10 for deacidification and $90 for microfilming. Experiments are now underway to strengthen paper so that it will be possible to rejuvenate materials instead of just stopping further embrittlement. This would save on the costs of having to do any preservation and would help libraries to conserve even more books.

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How to Help Preserve Books

Not only are there many efforts required of individuals working with materials deemed worthy of preservation but there are also things that those who regularly read books or use libraries can do. The preservation process begins with identifying those materials that are undergoing physical or chemical deterioration. Some are found by stack maintenance personnel who are always on the lookout while others are encountered almost daily at the circulation desk as volumes are returned. Still others are found by everyday library visitors.

It helps when an individual points out a book that they noticed on a shelf that was in bad shape, especially when this book might otherwise have gone unnoticed for years. Any deteriorated books or other materials that are found are forwarded for a selection decision. They look for signs such as damaged bindings, detached or torn pages, and flaking embrittled paper.

It is a great help to point out these books to library staff but it helps even more for people to treat books and other materials with respect so that they can be more easily preserved for tomorrow. These efforts plus the efforts already rising by federal, local, and private institutions to help in the preservation and conservation effort are immensely valuable in the purpose to save these materials. Every small act assists in maintain artifacts that we would not want future readers and academics to miss out on.

The preservation and conservation of books is an essential topic to learn and discuss in order to continue these efforts to help libraries with the overwhelming task of deciding what can and cannot be preserved. Also in the act of treating those materials for conservation. Although ideas last forever, books and other materials do not and it is essential that everyone do their part to help them last as long as possible.

© 2012 LisaKoski

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Comments 9 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Very interesting Lisa! I knew nothing about this and so found it fascinating. Great job!


GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

Fascinating. Deciding which books over others to continue conserving must be almost impossible - how hard.


Lipnancy profile image

Lipnancy 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

I have such a love for books after working in a library for two summers. Thanks for explaining this difficult process.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM

This article is very interesting and informative. I have some old books from my father's family that I want to preserve, so this is very helpful. Thanks for sharing your knowledge in this area - this is something I know nothing about and now I know what I can do to preserve them.


rajan jolly profile image

rajan jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

These factors were unknown to me Lisa. I'm glad I now know something about preserving books. Thanks. Voted up.


Deb Hasty 3 years ago

Excellent !

Thank you !


Jasperessentials profile image

Jasperessentials 3 years ago from United States Virgin Islands

I like


TolovajWordsmith profile image

TolovajWordsmith 20 months ago from Ljubljana

I was shocked when I found out books printed today are made of less quality materials than books printed hundred or more years ago. This is great example of scientific progress turns into consumerism, I suppose ... Very informative hub, by the way, and interesting read!


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 19 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Lisa, this was useful and interesting at the same time for preservation. Great tips for how to preserve old and paperback books, too. Voted up!

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