Book preservers work to keep the classics fresh

by Sarah Betts | 11/12/02 6:00am

It has been a long, hard life for Homer's "Iliad." Year after year, the book endures perusal by fingers sticky with dining-hall concoctions, spills of the late-night coffee that sustains its frantic readers and jolting cross-campus backpack odysseys. After term papers are finished, it lies buried under heaps of dorm-room refuse until returned to the library for the cycle to start afresh.

Luckily for "The Iliad" and all the other worn, abused books in Dartmouth's library collection, a department exists to tend to its needs. Preservation Services in Baker-Berry makes sure that the College's books stay in good working order.

This department undertakes the formidable task of repairing damage to books and other resource materials. Repairs can range from deacidifying paper to resewing entire books, according to Preservation Services librarian Barbara Sagraves. Books are also prepared for shelving by the department.

"For flimsy items, we sew them into pamphlets, and for books that are heavier than their bindings, we send them to a commercial binder outside of Boston," Sagraves said.

Books are delivered to Sagraves and her colleagues after being tagged by librarians in circulation, or when staff members note damage in a particular item.

"There can be five or 10 books a day that need repairs, and more during Spring term, since a lot of books that have been out come back then," Berry librarian Mary Bingman said.

When librarians notice something amiss with a particular book, there is a certain protocol to be followed, said Jennifer Taxman, head of access services at Berry.

"If we come across a moldy book, we are instructed to put on gloves, then put the book in a plastic bag," Taxman said. "Preservation puts it in a freezer to stop any growth until they can take it out and care for it."

In order to keep the number of books in need of repairs as small as possible, libraries have climate-control systems to aid in the conservation of Dartmouth's books.

"We keep the humidity around 40 to 50 percent and the temperature around 70 degrees all year," said Stanley Brown, curator of rare books at Rauner Special Collections. "The important thing is not to change the atmosphere, so the entire building is kept at the same temperature and humidity. We also have a triple-backup air-filtration system."

A climate-control system has just been added to the Baker-Berry stacks, Taxman said. Like Rauner, the system is set to 70 degrees and 50-percent humidity.

Access to certain books is controlled to aid in their conservation, as with books in Rauner. While the rare and valuable books can be viewed by anyone, they must be kept in the carefully monitored reading room, Brown said. Would-be viewers must leave their bags and writing utensils in the foyer of the building and follow certain handling procedures while looking at the books.

"We keep an eye on what's going on," Brown said.

The most fragile books at Baker-Berry can also be viewed only in the library, Taxman said.

Despite these precautions, though, some books won't be able to stand the pressure of use, Sagraves said.

"Modern books aren't made that well, and they don't hold up well to increasing circulation," Sagraves said. "Books from the mid-1800s on acidic paper also wear out."

For some Dartmouth libraries, problems like these may soon become obsolete as more books are purchased in digital form. The Feldberg library, which contains business-related publications, will hopefully become "totally digital," Associate Librarian of the College Cynthia Pawlek said.

"We have built a collection from Net Library, and we will purchase new digital titles," Pawlek said. "Books that are unique will still be part of the collection, but we are weeding some out."

The initiative is due to the greater accessibility of digital media. "The business world has moved so much more quickly as to make digital resources its preferred format," Pawlek said.

Though digital books do not have to be resewn or dehumidified, they still come with their own preservation challenges, Sagraves said. The challenge is to ensure that the information is permanent and enduring, she said.

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