Preserving paper records. Experts use modern and medieval techniques

At a test facility of the British Library, researchers working on ways to preserve the printed word put decayed books into a small chamber, shoot them through with chemicals, and then expose them to gamma rays. So, perhaps, goes the future in the battle with those silent destroyers of books - acidity, humidity, and temperature - a battle still often waged with tools that have been used since the 1930s, and as far back as the 13th century.

Acidity, pollution, and abuse have brought elderly books and documents, especially those published in the last 150 years or so, to a state of advancing decay and probable disintegration. The world's libraries are in danger of committing ``historical, cultural suicide,'' says Dr. Vartan Gregorian, president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library.

Hence the earnest search for high-volume technologies to salvage treasured books and documents.

The paper-strengthening process being developed by the British Library uses chemicals whose structure consists of long chains of molecules. These chains link together and form minute fibers inside the structure of the paper, strengthening it. But the technique is still highly experimental, the first stage of a pilot plan that will take two years to complete, says Dr. David Clements, the library's director of preservation. After that, he says, ``we hope to get funding for a production plant, which could easily take a few years to construct.'' It is still uncertain, however, if this technology will be cost-effective.

Similar questions attend the US Library of Congress's efforts to remove acid from stacks of books, a ``mass deacidification'' method that slows down the decaying process but does nothing for already brittle paper.

Mass deacidification is aimed at books published in the last several decades, and those currently entering the library. The program, which in its initial stages was conducted with the help of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, ran aground last November at the Goddard Space Center when a change in temperature in the test chamber caused a brief, intense fire; and again, several months later, when an explosion and fire occurred during the evacuaton of the system. No one was hurt, and no books were destroyed in either incident. Researchers had to push back the clock yet again, on their efforts to tackle the crumbling-book problem.

Attempts to deal with the acid-paper problem by getting publishers to print on acid-free paper have met with limited success so far. Some university presses and small publishers have switched over, but large publishing houses are more reluctant to make the change.

In the meantime, book and paper conservators continue to work away at the edges of the ocean that is the acid-paper problem, using a combination of high-tech apparatus, ancient tools, and craftsman's skills peculiar to their trade.

``We can only treat the tip of the iceberg,'' observes Ann Russell, executive director of the Northeast Document Conservation Center here. According to an official at the National Endowment for the Humanities, the center ``provides the broadest range of preservation services of any institution in the country.'' These services include microfilming - still the technology of choice for preserving the information content of books, even though it is slow and expensive. (Analog and digital videodiscs show some promise as a way to make a permanent record of the printed page, and the National Archives recently awarded a contract to a California firm for preserving documents.) The center also engages in the whole gamut of mending, cleaning, strengthening, and chemical treatments that make up the daily labors of conservators.

Conservators function as art historians, chemists, artists, and craftsmen. The job requires enormous patience, Dr. Russell says, as well as ``someone who is dedicated to the object.''

The treasured object in book conservator Sherelyn Ogden's hands this afternoon is a music manuscript from an 18th century book. The brown pages are undergoing the finishing labors of paper preservation. They have already been bathed in water and soaked in magnesium bicarbonate to retard acidity. Holding the pages up to the light, Ms. Ogden points out the distinctive tracks of decay that have eaten through the paper as the ink, which already had a high acid content, became even more acidic after combining with moisture in the air.

``Book conservation is based on a craft that's been around for hundreds of years,'' Ogden says. ``The way we bind books here today is essentially the same way they did it in the 1200s. Only we can't get the animal skins and the same good quality paper.''

A far more famous and important artifact, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, came to the center laminated in plastic and looking ``like a placemat for a Polynesian restaurant,'' as Russell puts it.

Sitting in the center's paper shop - which seems to be part laboratory and part Chinese laundry, with its flat baths for washing documents and its large chamber for treating objects with chemicals - Gary Albright, the conservator who worked on the proclamation, explains that he immersed the document in acetone. ``It's essentially nail polish remover in a purer form, a fairly potent chemical solvent, but one that's fairly harmless to paper.'' And it did the trick, removing the lamination. Mr. Albright did little more to the proclamation than bathe it and repair some ragged places around the edges. ``The more important the object, the more conservative we tend to be in our treatment of it,'' he explains.

This principle is inspired by the guiding philosophy of paper conservation - to make everything done to a document reversible so that it can be undone if some better process comes along.

There are high hopes among librarians and conservators that what comes along will be high-speed conservation technologies, like mass deacidification and paper strengthening. For now, the struggle to save the printed record inches along at the laborious pace of the microfilm camera and the conservator's patient hands.

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