The Little-Known ‘Slow Fire’ That’s Destroying All Our Books

From LitHub:

How to fix a book: first, gather your tools. The bone folder that feels familiar in your hand, the knitting needles still sticky with glue, the X-Acto knife, the tiny Tupperware of glue.

Then, diagnose the damage. If there’s scotch tape, grab the lighter fluid. If the book is on its last leg, worn out, prepare to make a box. Check that the guillotine is free.

Sometimes you need to be brutal, eschewing sentimentality as you cut off a spine or replace a book’s old, water-stained cover. At other times, gentle, delicate—especially with the books from Special Collections, those unique, fragile (and expensive) texts. And sometimes you find books with yellowed, stiff pages. The old dog-eared folds break off in triangles, flutter to the floor. These books can’t be helped by simple repairs—they’re acidified, dying, and the opposite of unique. In fact, they’re examples of a large-scale catastrophe that’s been quietly building in libraries for decades.

It’s called a “slow fire,” this continuous acidification and subsequent embrittlement of paper that was created with the seeds of its own ruin in its very fibers. In a 1987 documentary on the subject, the deputy Librarian of Congress William Welsh takes an embrittled, acid-burned book and begins tearing pages out by the handful, crumbling them into shards with an ease reminiscent of stepping on a dried-up insect carcass.

. . . .

The destruction is inevitable. Depending on how a book was made and how it’s been stored, embrittlement can happen in as little as 30 to 100 years. Already, books have been lost, and the methods of preservation are too limited, time-consuming, and expensive to address the scale of the problem. Mass deacidification, where an alkaline neutralizing agent is introduced via a spray or solution applied to paper, once seemed like the golden solution; but while it can be used to prevent slightly acidified paper from deteriorating, it doesn’t reverse the effects of prior damage. The fallback is digitization—a fancy way to say mass-scanning, and the most used method of saving the content of a text, but not the book itself. In an article about the Library of Congress’ digitization efforts, Kyle Chayka reports that it would take literally decades of scanning to preserve the institution’s over 160 million object collection. At our existing technology’s current scanning pace, preserving the prints and photographs division alone would take about 300 years.

As Ed Vermue, my boss at the tiny college preservation lab where I worked, put it: we cannot stop the slow destruction of our collections. From the mid-19th century until now, we’ve never had more paper, more print materials floating around our world. And there’s about to be a physical hole in the historical record that coincides precisely with the largest creation of printed materials in human history.

. . . .

In western Europe, from the 16th to mid-19th centuries, paper manufacturing was inherently a recycling industry. Old rags, dead peoples’ bedsheets, even canvas sails—all were collected, sorted, pulped, and turned into the material backbone for paper-making.

Paper demands fiber, and recycling was cheaper and faster than relying on the raw plant materials like flax and hemp to be grown, harvested, and readied for use. But as demand grew, papermakers started eyeing another kind of plant: trees, in all their abundance.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that someone figured out the code: an industrially intense process of pulverization and harsh chemicals that killed the fish in the streams that powered paper mills and, crucially, created highly acidic, weak paper. Think of newsprint, how quickly it disintegrates. For decades, and continuing into the 1970s, the material used to record both the mundane and profound thoughts of generations was just a few grades stronger than that notoriously short-lived medium.

Part of the reason wood-pulp paper is so weak is due to the comparably short strands of its fibers; it creates pages prone to break, and all the acids the paper retains from its production process creates pages that are already always burning up from the inside.

. . . .

The books and documents that history has deemed valuable, the ones made hundreds of years ago and kept in temperature-controlled vaults, will survive. Partly because of their importance, and partly because so many of them were made in the time before wood-pulp; many 500-year-old books are stronger and in better condition than texts created just a few decades ago.

Link to the rest at LitHub

13 thoughts on “The Little-Known ‘Slow Fire’ That’s Destroying All Our Books”

  1. It saved money and guaranteed you’d have to buy it again (and if the publisher had folded they no longer cared about that old book anyway.)

    Which is why trad-pub is so against ebooks. Properly saved bits don’t rot and can easily be moved to another drive/memory stick (so long of course that it wasn’t Digital Restricted Managemented to death or some obscure format no one can read.)

    Though one EMP and our ebooks all go up in a ‘flash of fire’ (or MS’s latest ‘Word’ update refuses to read anything saved longer than a month ago), so maybe it’s time to get out the chisel and hammer and save our writing for all time! (I hear it’s a real workout turning a slab without cracking/shattering the dang thing … 😉 )

  2. My experience with old paperbacks – mostly but not entirely American SF and fantasy – is that the paper is still fine after 50+ years but the glue is not. It doesn’t matter much that the pages will eventually rot if they are already blowing in the wind.

    As for switching to chisel and hammer on stone, not only is this hard work but our local graveyard indicates that it is not as long lasting as you might hope if stored in the open air. I suggest baked clay tablets: easily worked and, if properly fired, really long lasting and Californian wild fires will not harm your library. If they were good enough for Ashurbanipal …

    • If I had to output a document for the ages I’d use a high impact dot-matrix printer (they still make those), viscous ink ribbon, and a roll of gold foil. And then bathe the ribbon in a plastic preservative.

      Store the roll in a stainless steel vacuum sealed tube and the thing will be readable well after the species is gone.

      Paper of all kinds is transitory; metal is the way to go. 😀

      • This strikes me as overly ambitious. Do we really need to preserve something unread – given that it is sealed away – until there is no-one left who knows how to read?

        Maybe though it’s not ambitious enough? Will it survive when the Sun becomes a red giant or goes nova? We can hope that our descendants are around to move the Earth to safety but is this a good enough back up plan?

        • It doesn’t have to stay unread forever.

          Just until civilization collapses and the new guys need it.
          Ramping up a new civilization without surface minerals, gushers, and all the raw materials we’ve used.
          They may have to go straight to renewables and advanced batteries without going through coal and gasoline.

          Poul Anderson worked on it in his Psychotecnic League series and in the THERE WILL BE TIME standalone.

          Jared Diamond’s non-fiction THE COLLAPSE covers the fall of civilizations. It is something of a cautionary book.

          Ours will survive or fall on the question of technology development. If the luddites have their way we won’t make it to the next century. And then the doomsday seed vault in Norway and a comparable repository of knowledge will be needed.

          If we outmanuever them and get to asteroid mining by mid-century we might survive. For now it’s a toss-up.

        • BTW, I don’t think moving tbe Earth (SPACE 1999 style), even with space opera science, would be wise. Removing the Sun (and/or moon) gravity effects strikes me as a good way to trigger all faults, volcanoes, and supervolcanoes. Simultaneously.

          If this civilization survives the next century, a better solution would be to get out of Dodge, baby bird style. Find and make new nests.

          Musk wants humanity to be multiplanetary but that’s the first step. We need to go multi-stellar. At least. 🙂

          • I take your point but even supervolcanoes may be preferable to the outer fringes of a red giant’s atmosphere. I was thinking more along the lines of Larry Niven’s “A World Out of Time” than SPACE 1999 – I actually and accidentally rewatched the first episode of the latter recently and it remains as lacking in plausibility as I remembered.

            • Of the Anderson SF shows, the one most plausible (and begging for a remake) is UFO. They actually had decent science behind the story.

              • I have quite fond memories of UFO but this may have just been for the rather tight fitting uniforms of the moonbase operatives. I think my favourite was Thunderbirds.

                • The eye-candy guys getting coffee for the no-nonsense womwn in command was fun. And the purple wigs were cute.
                  They had good writing, it was plausible, and never got cheesy. Holds up well, except for the smoking. 🙂

  3. This is why alkaline (acid- and lignin-free) paper exists. It’s still wood-pulp based, but, hey, 500-1,000 years of life ain’t bad. And my next story is pushing that to 30,000 years.

  4. My research occasionally involves handling 19th century newspapers that haven’t been microfilmed or otherwise digitized. There is no mistaking when a newspaper switched to cheaper paper, typically in the 1860s or 70s. The earlier paper is just fine. You wouldn’t mistake it for new, but it is structurally sound. The newer paper crumbles no matter how careful you are.

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