Think of libraries as museums for the printed word. Think of their collections as a treasure chest of recorded knowledge with artistic and historical value.
Now think of those documents turning brittle, fading, and eventually crumbling into useless scraps of paper.
Librarians in the United States cannot help but think of this, since the deterioration of books has now become one of their most pressing concerns. Where adding to collections was once their dominant goal, libraries now face an uphill battle simply holding onto what they have.
While books quietly sit on the shelf, fluorescent lighting, humidity, temperature variations, and the high acid content of most modern types of paper all cause slow deterioration. And library patrons can take years off the life of a book with rough handling.
Library officials agree there has been rapid recognition of the problem in the past few years, and that this is the first step toward a solution. The Association of Research Libraries recently surveyed its 113 members and found that 40 had book-preservation programs, compared with only six three years ago.
Still, more trained specialists in book restoration and new methods of treating books are requisite for any major improvement in the state of the nation's library resources.
"The problem has seemed intractable because it is so huge," says Pamela Darling, a preservation specialist with the Association of Research Libraries.
Indeed, book-preservation experts conservatively estimate that one-third of the nation's library holdings are in a serious state of deterioration. The Library of Congress spends some $5 million annually on book preservation, yet 6 million volumes in its collection are considered too brittle and fragile for public use.
Preservation programs today typically emphasize preventative steps to protect new books rather than the more expensive efforts needed to save older books.
"There are real signs of progress, but I don't know if we are gaining ground on the problem," conceded an official with the Library of Congress.
"We must build from the ground up," Mrs. Darling agrees. She is developing a "model" preservation program that will provide individual libraries with the basics on how to set up their own programs.
Library officials say one of the most pressing needs is for more people skilled in book restoration and repair. Columbia University plans to offer a graduate program in book preservation in the fall of 1981, which would be the first of its kind in the US.
The National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency, has for the first time requested in its 1981 budget funds to establish a distinct book-preservation program. It wants to spend $500,000 to help libraries identify and meet their book-preservation needs.
Many in the library profession are waiting for a technological breakthrough as the best hope for gaining ground in book restoration. Today, many older books are simply microfilmed to preserve their content. But this does not save the original and is considered only a partial solution. The cost of putting one book on microfilm averages about $30.
Book preservation requires page-by-page treatment and water-base solutions to remove the acid and other contaminents from the paper and give it new strength. This process costs about $100 per volume.
The alternative the library profession looks forward is mass treatment of books, with a vapor or gas, that will make book preservation even cheaper than microfilming.
The Library of Congress is experimenting with a diethyl zinc process of mass deacidification -- a vapor treatment in a vacuum chamber for several thousand books at a time. The process has shown promise; more tests are planned this year. Mass treatment of books could cut restoration costs to $5 to $7 a volume, experts forecast.
Some libraries have made gains in preventing book deterioration. Temperature-and humidity-control systems have been introduced, filters have been placed over fluorescent fixtures, and there is better overall monitoring of book storage areas.