Rescue of books set back

February 14, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

While a billion books in libraries across the nation are slowly turning to dust from acid embedded in their pages, the most promising remedy for their condition is being withdrawn from the market.

A Dutch chemical company, AKZO, recently notified the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins University and other libraries it holds contracts with that it would stop deacidifying books April 1. There's no money in it, the company says.

For research libraries like those at Hopkins, Harvard, Northwestern and elsewhere, AKZO's decision could prove disastrous.

The Dutch company was the only company in the world offering what it describes as a mass deacidification treatment for books. It held out the promise of rescue for valuable book collections and historic documents everywhere.

The problem of the brittle books had its genesis in the 1830s, which saw a great surge in the public's appetite for books as more and more people learned to read.

Producers of quality paper, made from linen, could not meet the demand. They resorted to other materials, such as straw, esparto grass from Africa and finally wood pulp treated with chemicals -- which even then they knew would ultimately destroy the paper.

Until the recent trend toward the use of alkaline-based paper by publishing houses, nearly all books were made of acidic paper.

The realization that the problem had ballooned into a crisis came almost 30 years ago, said Douglas McElrath, head of the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis.

"By the '60s, a lot of major library collections were getting up there. They had a lot of paper about 100 years old. They started noticing then that brittle books was a pervasive and not an isolated problem.

"The big, seminal event was the great flood in Florence [in 1966, which destroyed or damaged many paintings and documents]," he said. "That made people realize we had no widespread expertise in conservation in this country."

In many libraries today, more than half the collection is on acidic paper. At the Enoch Pratt Central Library, for instance, about half the 1.5 million volumes are at risk, according to Carla D. Hayden, the director.

The Eisenhower Library at Hopkins is awaiting the return of its final shipment -- 357 volumes -- sent last month to the AKZO plant in Deer Park, Texas. Over the past three years, nearly 12,000 of the library's books have been deacidified -- saved for posterity.

Hopkins has more than 2 million volumes in its collection and adds about 40,000 each year.

"As of October 1993, we stopped adding acidic paper to our collections, and we were beginning to reach into our existing collections," said Scott Bennett, director of the library on the Homewood campus. This stabilization was effected, he said, through a combination of deacidification and the acquisition, where possible, of books made of alkaline paper.

"If we lose this treatment, we are back to where we were before," he said.

Harvard, which has the largest university library in the world with 13 million books and documents, has so far rescued more than 12,000 books and 10,000 maps through deacidification.

The widespread awareness that most of the nation's books were being consumed by the glacial advance of chemical self-destruction prompted a search for a solution in recent years. The Library of Congress, with the world's largest collection of books and manuscripts, took the lead. It developed the controversial di-ethyl zinc system (DEZ).

From the beginning, it posed problems. One was its volatility.

In 1986 at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, technicians from the Northrup Corp. put books into a vacuum chamber and introduced di-ethyl zinc gas. It blew up.

"It happened right after the Challenger explosion," recalled Kenneth Harris, the Library of Congress project manager for preservation.

The library then turned to AKZO, a multinational chemical company based in the Netherlands, to improve the process. It did, and in July 1989, the Department of Commerce licensed the company to operate.

AKZO built a vacuum chamber and plant in Texas and went into business. Books sent there were infused with DEZ gas and returned. The procedure cost $10 a volume.

Customers were slow in coming.

"We invested five years and more than a million U.S. dollars, and the facility in Texas is half-empty," complained Richard F. Miller, AKZO's project director for the plant, in a telephone interview from Europe.

"The process is the clear leader worldwide, but we're dealing with a [library] community that is risk-averse. We expected that within a period of two to three years, the unitin Texas would be fully occupied, and we would be operating on a break-even basis. But last year we lost between $200,000 and $300,000.

"It's been very frustrating," he said. "There is no question, there are a billion books [at risk] in research libraries and archives. The need is real. The process is the best available one."

On this point there is dispute.

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