Remember the scene in National Treasure ...?

Dec 08, 2005
Remember the scene in National Treasure when Nicolas Cage's character steals the Declaration of Independence from a conservation lab, with bullets flying and hearts pounding? Well, life may not be that exciting in the Parks Library Preservation Department, but we wear lab coats and white gloves, and we certainly have numerous treasures to protect.Preservation repair item

There are over 2.4 million books in the University Library, with an estimated 10% of them in brittle condition and another 50% printed on acidic paper that will eventually become brittle. Others are simply falling apart, due to routine wear and tear. The monumental task of caring for these materials falls to the staff in the library's Preservation Department. Last year alone, roughly 40,000 items underwent a variety of preservation treatments -- repair, binding, boxing and reformatting -- to extend their useful life.

The majority of materials, new and old, that are handled by Preservation staff are sent to a commercial library bindery. Staff in the department's Binding and Marking unit shipped over 28,000 volumes for binding or re-binding last year. This unit is also responsible for preparing material to be shelved in various library collections. This includes placing call number labels and property stamps on items, and also securing each item with a theft-detection device.

The Conservation Lab is another unit within the Preservation Department. This 3,000 square foot facility, built and furnished through the generous gifts of donors, was created in 1996 and is located on the fourth floor of the University Library. This state-of-the-art lab is equipped with stainless steel sinks for washing paper documents and maps; an ultrasonic encapsulator to protect and seal documents and photographs in polyester sheets; an electric guillotine for trimming books; and a fume hood used in performing chemical treatments on a variety of materials. Nearly 11,000 books, documents, photographs, and other artifacts were cleaned and repaired last year in the Conservation Lab. Another 700 items had custom-fit boxes made for their protection during storage and use.

Unfortunately, there are no available treatments for brittle books. For these items we are left to duplicating them onto microfilm or reprinting them onto permanent paper. By doing this we preserve the intellectual content but lose the artifact, which may be valuable in itself, or may contain additional information about the publisher, printer, binder, author or artist. For books that are printed on acidic paper but not yet brittle, a commercial process known as mass deacidification can be used to neutralize the harmful acids in paper and slow the deterioration process.

Obviously, with so many books in the University Library and thousands more arriving each year, the Preservation Department cannot treat them all. Our most effective method for caring for the collection is through proactive, preventative measures: controlling the temperature, relative humidity, dust, and pests in our facilities, and developing adequate plans for disaster preparedness and salvage. These are the very same measures we recommend to individuals who are concerned about their own treasures -- family heirlooms, photographs, and documents that they would like to pass on to future generations.