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World’s Written Heritage Turning to Dust With Alarming Speed

September 26, 1989

CHICAGO (AP) _ The world’s written heritage is turning to dust with alarming speed and newer books are among the first to crumble, said specialists gathered Tuesday to discuss book preservation.

″Sixteen million volumes and manuscripts in the Library of Congress will require treatment to prevent total deterioration,″ said preservationist Dick Miller. ″Two-and-a-half million books in the New York Public Library (system) turn to dust every year.″

Miller and other preservationists are members of a library task for the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an organization of Midwestern universities and libraries. The task force began meeting Monday to consider various preservation techniques.

Miller, book preservation director for Akzo Chemicals Inc. in Chicago, wants to seal books in a gas chamber, while Richard D. Smith of Wei T’o Associates Inc. in Matteson, Ill., wants to douse them with solvents.

Other possibilities are water-based baths and aerosol sprays.

Until one system is proved best, laboratory director Mimi Lampert of Chicago’s Newberry Library will continue to preserve the private institution’s rarest books page-by-page, and to lock the rest in darkness - in a 10-level, windowless, climate-controlled tower.

″In essence, we keep our books in a huge thermos bottle,″ she said.

Few public institutions, however, could afford to adopt the Newberry’s measures, which even include white-gloved page-turners who are the only people allowed to touch certain books.

Studies in New York and the Netherlands proved that atmospheric pollutants have a role in the deterioration of books, but Ms. Lampert said the main culprit is the acid content of the paper itself.

The deterioration first sets in as yellowing and soon progresses to brittleness. Finally, the paper simply crumbles.

Ironically, the destructive process works faster in newer books, preservationists said. Books printed before 1850 are relatively immune because the linen rag paper used in earlier centuries was acid-free.

Modern mass publishing involves cheaper wood-pulp paper, which contains acid. Neutralizing acid is the key to preservation, Miller said.

Miller’s company, using a process developed at the Library of Congress, seals books in a vacuum chamber, where they are permeated with vapors of diethyl zinc. Zinc oxide then binds with the paper, neutralizing the acid.

″It also makes the paper fluoresce bright orange under ultraviolet light, so it can also be used as an identification and anti-theft device for rare books,″ Miller said.

The process was first demonstrated in a kitchen pressure cooker, but is now done in chambers developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Miller said.

Smith’s process, developed with the National Archives of Canada, soaks books in a solution of magnesium carbonate, liquified Freon and wood alcohol. His company also produces an aerosol spray for use by private book collectors.

″None of the systems are going to save paper that is already brittle,″ Ms. Lampert said.

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