Preserving books for posterity | Sunday Observer

Preserving books for posterity

21 July, 2019

When a ship is sinking it sends out a distress signal ‘SOS’ (Save Our Souls). Then ships sailing nearby would come to its rescue. But when our books are dying what kind of signal can we send out? I can think of only one such signal: ‘SOB’ (Save Our Books).

You might wonder how books can die as they have no life. It was Jacqueline Sanson, a leading librarian, who first cried out, “Our books are dying.” As a librarian she had a vision and a mission in life. She made an open appeal to preserve the printed word because it is our only hope of remembering the past and protecting our cultural heritage for posterity.

I once visited a leading public library in the city, and almost on every shelf I saw at least one brown envelope with a red sticker saying, ‘Do not remove.’ I wondered why. The librarian explained that each envelope contained the remnants of a book that can no longer bear the touch of human hands. She lowered her voice and said, “These books are dead, and these are their graves.” One day I took an old tattered book to a binder. He had a close look at it and said, “Sorry, I can’t bind this book.” When I asked the reason why, he said, “It’s dead.” Sometimes, librarians and book binders are kindred spirits.

Frayed and cracked

Without touching those ‘graves’ I moved to a different section of the library. I pulled out a big volume and began to turn the pages. I found that most pages were beginning to yellow around the edges. Even the other pages were frayed and cracked. I kept the volume back on the shelf. It is a sorry spectacle to note that even books have their own lifespan. Even if a book is never used by a reader, it is sure to decay with time.

Sri Lanka does not have large libraries as in Germany, the United States or Switzerland. According to reliable sources, 152 million volumes in the research libraries of Germany and 17 million volumes in Swiss libraries are fast deteriorating.

‘Science’ magazine reports that nearly 80 million volumes in American libraries are facing the same predicament.

This is not a new phenomenon. In 1900 the Director of the BibliothequeNationale, Leopold Delisle said, “Bad paper quality has condemned thousands of books to uselessness in a relatively short period.” Libraries in Third World countries do not feel the gravity of the problem because they do not have a large number of books.

At the beginning most librarians did not heed the warning, and they came out with various explanations. Some of them blamed insects, humidity and exhaust fumes from vehicles.

They also said a growing number of readers are using the books. Until the 1950s they could not find the real culprit. Scientists have now identified that acid – the chemical composition of paper was the real cause of the damage to books.

Advent of printing

Before the advent of printing, books were handwritten. Although it took a long time to produce a book it became a tool of learning which lasted a long time. In the 14th century China produced paper using fibrous matter and rags. The invention revolutionized the book industry. This was followed by the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 15th century.

It took another four centuries for literacy to spread. In the 19th century books, magazines and newspapers began to be produced on a mass scale. When manufacturers of paper ran short of traditional raw materials such as fibrous matter and rags, scientists came up with a less expensive substitute, i.e. wood pulp.

Something unexpected happened when Barbara Goldsmith, an American writer, began her research to write a book on Gloria Vanderbilt. She found that the documents the Vanderbilt family printed before 1850 were in good condition. However, those printed later were in a bad condition.

Open secret

It is an open secret that manufacturers know the effect of acid on paper. However, they were not worried because only one per cent of the paper went to make books. American archivist William Barrow found that it was possible to manufacture acid-free (alkaline) paper that will last a long time. With the newfound knowledge, authors began to pressurize publishers to use acid-free paper for printing their books. Due to persistent agitation, today, most of the government and private firms are alert on this subject. British Parliament papers are now printed on permanent paper. Even the United States passed a law requiring Federal records to be printed on acid-free paper. The good news is that major paper mills in the West have switched to alkaline paper. The use of permanent paper is both an economic and moral choice.

Advanced technologies

The sad news is that what had already been printed cannot be preserved for obvious reasons. In time to come advanced technologies will make book preservation a reality. Luckily, important documents can now be laminated and books can be de-acidified. Such preservation techniques should be lauded but readers also have a role to play in this regard.

Those who use library reading rooms should make it a point not to bring in food and drinks. Some librarians insist on this requirement. Library users should control their urge to tear out pages or make comments on the page margins. Marginal notes are fine if you own the book. Library books are public property and they should not be misused. What is more, if you borrow a book from the library, return it in the same condition on the due date. In such small ways we can increase the longevity of books.

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