AT the moment, the human record - the collected wisdom of scholars and scribblers - may endure no longer than the paper it is printed on. All one has to do to confirm the perishable nature of the printed word is visit the sprawling stacks of the New York Public Library, where a book pulled at random from a shelf recently scattered a flurry of disintegrated pages, and potentially lost knowledge, across the floor.
But there is new hope that the knowledge, if not the paper, in such books will endure.
Far-flung efforts to bring the best research, technology, and cooperative thinking to bear on the problem seem to many informed observers to be bearing fruit. The prospect appears nearer than ever for a single national agenda and a system for identifying and housing the great body of treasured documents. Cautious optimism
In the wake of bleak predictions over the past several years that only a fraction of this heritage could be saved, those engaged in the battle have begun to offer, cautiously, a more optimistic assessment.
``Clearly, there are people in Congress who see the problem for what it is,'' says Warren J. Hass, president of the Council on Library Resources (CLR) in Washington, D.C. Initiatives in New York State, Wisconsin, Maine, and New Jersey are part of what he sees as a snowballing momentum on behalf of paper preservation.
Today, Dr. Vartan Gregorian, president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library, characterizes the problem as ``awesome, not gloomy.''
The proportions of the task, he acknowledges, are massive. Because of the acidity of paper used in printing since about 1850, as well as environmental and usage factors, 76 million volumes in America's major research libraries alone are in danger of disintegrating, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities. That's enough books to fill a shelf stretching from Boston to Dallas; and all of them could be lost in the next 20 to 30 years.
The CLR has estimated that the cost of saving even a third of these volumes is $384 million. Technological advances
Various advances in the technology of paper preservation (most notably a mass deacidification method being pioneered by the US Library of Congress) have offered some promise; but, so far, no definitive solution to what librarians call a national and international emergency has emerged. The result is that ``we are about to lose a large portion of our cultural heritage, and that of other cultures as well,'' says Jeffrey Field, assistant preservation officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
This alarming prospect has led research librarians and others to pursue a national system for storing and retrieving those essential records of scholarship that make up our cultural and intellectual heritage; and that goal seems at least within view.
``Ten years from now, there will be a new national collection of preserved materials to which the country's researchers will have access,'' Mr. Haas says flatly. A national collection needed
This collection, he suggests, may either be housed in a single facility, such as the Center for Research Libraries in Chicago, or as a diverse collection scattered throughout the nation's research libraries and accessible through a data-link system. The specific form of the library is of less concern, however, than how comprehensive its collection turns out to be.
How much of our precious heritage, and that of other cultures, can be retrieved and made accessible to scholars and the general public?
That question - and the equally troubling one of who will decide what gets saved and what must perish - are the principal challenges facing the nation's leading research libraries and their recently formed National Commission on Preservation and Access. The commission is just beginning to wrestle with the tangle of technological, ethical, and historical issues, as well as the vast scope of the paper disintegration problem.
But many observers see the very existence of the commission, which had its first meeting last April, as one sign among many that the issue has been joined.
``We've reached critical mass in the number of libraries that have jumped on the bandwagon,'' observes Gay Walker, head of the preservation department at Yale Library. ``In 1970, only one library other than the Library of Congress really had any kind of preservation program.'' Now, she adds, between 30 and 40 major institutions are engaged in such programs, including 20 of the 32 members of the Library Research Group.
Other encouraging signs include a heightened awareness of the paper deterioration problem and an increasing readiness among corporations to underwrite efforts to preserve our printed heritage. (Exxon, for instance, recently funded a new preservation center to serve the Mid-Atlantic states.)
Evidence of increased awareness shows up at the doorstep of places like the Northeast Document Conservation Center, nestled on the provincial campus of the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. In the past eight years, the staff of this center has almost quadrupled, from 12 to 42. This increase is due in large measure to what the center's executive director, Dr. Ann Russell, sees as ``a growing appetite and funding'' for preservation services.
This thriving, nonprofit enterprise pays its way by charging sizable fees for the painstaking work of restoration; and so it necessarily deals with documents that have a constituency. If a research library or historical society considers a document valuable enough to invest considerable money in, then it will survive.
And that, generally, is the process around the country, where institutions look at their own collections and make the tough decisions about what to save first.
At the moment, a ``triage method'' prevails, observes Ms. Walker of Yale. Like rescue teams on a battlefield, bibliographers, conservators, and curators must decide, as Dr. Gregorian puts it: ``Whom do you save, Einstein or your brother and sister?''
Hence the push on a national level to pool information about what is being microfilmed and preserved, so as to eliminate duplication and to identify what most needs to be saved.
``We are talking about gearing up in the next two or three years in a major way,'' predicts Walker, ``and that really will make a change in our field.''