Scholars fear millions of books will turn to dust

January 04, 1995|By Christian Science Monitor

SAN DIEGO -- For more than a century, members of the Modern Language Association have come together once a year to talk about literature -- the stuff bound up (mostly) in books. This time, the book itself became a focal point of the group's annual meeting, held here recently.

"The future of the print record is jeopardized," says J. Hillis Miller, former president of the association, known as the MLA.

What scholars are realizing is something that librarians started to investigate 40 years ago: Millions of volumes are turning to dust on U.S. library shelves.

The composition of book paper and certain chemical treatments have discolored pages and, because of air pollutants, caused them to get brittle and crumble.

Book preservation has become such a hot topic, said Phyllis Franklin, the association's executive director, that "99 percent of MLA members think that this is the most important question that has come down the pike."

The association held sessions on preserving books and released a draft statement on the subject, urging scholars to "recognize that the future of humanistic study depends on the preservation of original materials."

The problem is mostly confined to books published after the 1850s, when the industry moved from cotton-rag and linen-rag paper to paper produced from wood pulp.

Publishers in recent years have moved to acid-free paper, which alleviates the problem. But more than a century's worth of books remain at risk. According to Mr. Miller, 100 million such books are moldering away in the United States; about 10 million are irreplaceable.

There are solutions, but each has its drawbacks. A division of Chicago-based FMC Corp. has developed a chemical treatment to take the acid out of old books.

Unfortunately, it could cost libraries an estimated $10 to $15 a book -- at a time when libraries are already cutting their budgets.

Some companies are copying old books onto microfilm or into various kinds of computer formats.

For the past five years, the National Endowment for the Humanities has financed programs that have put more than 550,000 volumes on microfilm.

But copied books don't live up to the original, scholars said at the MLA meeting.

"I just don't believe that a picture of this is the same as feeling it," says Gregg Camfield, a University of Pennsylvania professor, as he held up an 1873 publisher's prospectus. "I don't think we can afford to lose our past."

For one thing, copies lack some of the information of the original. If an author changed his manuscript using one color pen, then later made further changes with another color, the corrections all look the same on a photocopied page.

Miriam Fuchs of the University of Hawaii was puzzled why a Hawaiian queen filled only part of her diary pages -- until she went back to the originals.

The copies she had studied were regular-sized paper; the original diaries were quite a bit smaller, allowing the queen to hide them in the folds of her Victorian gown.

Anthony Pugh of the University of New Brunswick went back to the original notebooks of French author Marcel Proust and found a mistake that other scholars, reading the microfilmed copies, had missed.

Material thought to have been lost turned up on the facing page, which Proust rarely used.

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