Save books for posterity | Sunday Observer

Save books for posterity

25 September, 2022

A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life - Milton

Much has been written on the value of reading, but we have not paid any attention to the preservation of books. At least in the Literary Month let us make a concerted attempt to preserve the printed word. It is our only hope of remembering the past and protecting our cultural heritage for future generations.

When librarian Jacqueline Sanson said, “Our books are dying” it came as a surprise to readers. Can books die like human beings or animals? Without answering such a question, she guided a group of people around the 11 floors of the Bibliotheque Nationale (BN) in Paris, where some ten million volumes are stored. She pointed out to a brown envelope with a sticker saying, “Do not remove” on every shelf. Some people wanted to know the contents of the envelopes. She said each envelope contained the remnants of a book that can no longer be used or read. “Why?” A curious girl asked her. “Because these books are dead and the envelopes are their graves.”

As a student I used to frequent many well-known libraries in the city. Although I did not see brown envelopes containing ‘dead books’ there were volumes beginning to yellow around the edges. In some books the pages were frayed and cracked and you simply cannot read them. One day I opened a big volume and I noticed that some pages had simply dissolved into brownish confetti. Is this a modern epidemic in our libraries? You do not know whether a book is ‘sick’ until you take it out from the shelf. And they are the books most readers want to use.

No remedy

If you walk into any library, you will see many volumes lying untouched. They have never been removed from the shelf. The tragedy is that even those books will die one day. What can we do to save the books in our libraries? A senior librarian now in retirement said there was apparently no remedy in sight. She said the problem has affected even highly developed countries. According to her, one third of the 152 million volumes in a library in Germany and 90 per cent of the 17 million volumes of a Swiss library are deteriorating. ‘Science’ magazine reported that 80 million volumes in American libraries are also crumbling into confetti.

The problem is not new and it has affected the libraries in almost all the countries. Leopold Delisle, Director of the Bibliotheque Nationale says the problem is caused by bad paper quality used by book publishers. Even in Sri Lanka some books have been printed on inferior paper. Such books cannot be used for more than a few years. The books printed on quality paper lasted many years. However, book publication is a business and publishers cannot afford to print books on quality paper as it is expensive.

Apart from the quality of paper, there are other culprits that attack books. Certain insects destroy pages. Sunlight, humidity, fumes coming out of factories and increasing number of readers are the other reasons that lead to the deterioration of books. Some readers are in the habit of removing pages from books. The real culprit that damaged books was identified in the 1950s by a group of scientists. According to them, it was the acid, a chemical composition found in paper, that caused the destruction of books. During the same period an American archivist found a way to produce acid-free alkaline paper that lasted for a very long time. Sometime later American writers began to put pressure on publishers to use quality paper. Even lawyers, scientists and scholars were concerned about the paper quality. As a result the British Parliament now prints its important documents on permanent paper. Even the United States has passed a law requiring Federal records to be printed on acid-free paper.

Growing demand

Today major paper mills produce acid-free alkaline paper. There is a growing demand for such paper but the cost of production has gone up. Whatever the cost, everybody has a moral duty to preserve the printed word. Books are the major elements of our cultural heritage.

We are living in an era in which newspapers, books and magazines are published on a massive scale. In fact paper mills seem to have failed to produce paper to meet the growing demand. Today publishers find it extremely difficult to print and distribute books as they did a few years ago. We are compelled to read newspapers with a lesser number of pages.

American writer Barbara Goldsmith who began research on the Vanderbilt family for her book about socialite Gloria Vanderbilt found that documents printed before 1850 were in a better condition than those printed later. She said only one per cent of quality paper is used to print books. Her research helped William Barrow to produce acid-free alkaline paper.

Cumbersome procedure

In times to come advanced technologies will make book preservation easier and more effective. Electronic systems will be able to digitalize words and transfer them to discs. However, it will be a cumbersome procedure. Therefore scientists are looking for new preservation methods. One such method is to laminate the pages. Sometimes books are baked in an oven to reduce humidity. Afterwards they are immersed in a bath of chemicals which neutralizes existing acids in the paper. In the 1980s the Library of Congress developed a more ambitious programme. Thousands of books were put into vacuum chambers and the air and moisture were pumped off. It prevented the paper from future acid deterioration. Scientists are going ahead with more sophisticated methods of preserving books for future generations.

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