The University Record, October 28, 1998

Gift funds massive University Library preservation efforts

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Have an acid problem? So do thousands of books at the University Library. They can’t be treated with popular over-the-counter acid relievers, but a firm in Pennsylvania is providing help.

Thousands of books from the University Library are being deacidified, treated to neutralize the destructive acids in the very paper that makes up the books.

Funding for the preservation process, being done by Preservation Technologies LP, is made possible in part by a recent gift from former U-M library science faculty member Raymond L. Kilgour. The Nebraska resident’s establishment of the Raymond L. Kilgour Library Preservation Fund and the Raymond L. Kilgour-Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library Book Fund allow the preservation of current holdings and the purchase of new material.

“The most pleasurable years of my teaching experience were spent at Michigan, and this gift is a way to say thank you,” Kilgour said.

Poor materials used in the manufacture of paper have resulted in thousands of books succumbing to acid-induced degradation and now breaking up into yellow flakes on the Library’s shelves. Since 1983 the Library’s Preservation Division has been microfilming and replacing these volumes in an effort to preserve the contents for future students. The process of deacidification, averaging about $18 for a two-pound book, is far less expensive than other means of preservation.

A recent survey shows that about 54 percent of books in the University Library collections are now too brittle to benefit from deacidification treatment. For these materials, transferring the text to another stable format is the only practical way to preserve them. Another 17 percent of the collection is printed on paper that is already alkaline. The rest of the collection, about 1.9 million volumes, is printed on acidic paper that is in good condition now but will deteriorate significantly over the next century unless treated.

Some books are not good candidates for successful deacidification treatment—those with detached pages or damaged bindings, books printed entirely on glossy paper and books more than 12 inches tall, too big for the equipment used in the process.

Once the bound volumes are fanned open, they are immersed in a tank of magnesium oxide suspended in perfluoralkane for about 30 minutes. Because the treatment does not use water or other solvents, inks, bookcloth, and glues are not damaged. The only obvious difference after treatment is a slight chalky feeling on the paper. This dust, magnesium hydroxide, is non-toxic.

Library preservation specialists have long understood that neutralizing the acids in paper up front, before the paper goes brittle, and adding an alkaline buffer can extend the functional life of the paper for decades, even hundreds of years. But the majority of books published since the mid-19th century, including those printed today, are produced on acidic paper. Scientists have been working since the late 1970s to develop a process for retrospectively treating large quantities of bound volumes that is safe, easy and economical.

For further information about this process or preserving books in general, contact Shannon Zachary, head of Conservation Services 763-6980.

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