Preserving the national written heritage calls for urgent action.
First Stage of the National Collection Condition Survey Completed
Brittle paper a major problem
Helsinki University Library, the National Library of Finland, carried out a condition survey of its National Collection between 2001 and 2004. This random sample survey formed the first stage of a larger survey planned to reach completion in a few years' time. In this article we present an overview of the findings of the first stage of the survey. When the project is completed, we will be able to perform more in-depth analyses that will also allow a meaningful international comparison of the results.
The National Library's Statutory Duty to Preserve
Helsinki University Library is legally responsible for the long-term preservation of the printed materials produced in Finland and for making them accessible regardless of their physical condition or whether they were meant for permanent existence at the time of publication. The Library can enhance the long-term preservation of its materials through conservation and reformatting solutions, such as microfilming and digitisation.
Our resources, however, are limited, and different types of printed materials require different preservation and conservation methods. While a leaf-casting machine is an effective in repairing rag paper damaged by mould, it does not suit equally well for repairing old paper made from wood. Black-and-white microfilming is suitable for monochrome printing but not for dealing with a multi-coloured art book. Digitisation helps us make materials accessible so that we do not have to give the originals to users. From these we must choose the preservation method best suited for each type of material.
Over the centuries printed products have been made using a wide variety of materials and methods. For this reason we today often have to take special measures to ensure that they can be preserved in the long term. The durability of paper produced at different periods of time varies to a great degree. Also the preservation conditions and the handling of collections deemed proper at one time or another may have damaged the materials over the years. Because the volume of materials requiring preservation treatment is growing fast and the resources available to us remain scarce, we need a thorough understanding about the condition of our collections to be able to give priority to those materials requiring special treatment.
The holdings of Helsinki University Library contain about three million books and periodicals and an equal number of other items such as maps, printed music, printed ephemera, manuscripts, microforms, sound recordings and other non-print media. Printed literature dates back to the 15th century; some items in the manuscripts collection are even older than that. For the most part the materials have been obtained after 1827, excluding a few hundred items than survived the fire of Turku in the early 1800s (the Aboica Collection).
All printed products and sound recordings published in Finland are deposited in the national legal deposit collection for permanent storage for the benefit of research and other use. The materials are obtained in accordance with the Legal Deposit Act. Besides books the National Collection contains newspapers, periodicals, printed music, maps and ephemera as well as sound recordings and other non-print media. Also materials produced by people of Finnish origin living outside Finland as well as foreign publications dealing with Finland form part of the national collection (http://www.lib.helsinki.fi/english/services/collections/collectionlist.htm).
Condition Survey Based on Random Sampling
Because we cannot examine every single volume individually, a condition survey must be based on random sampling. This is the only reliable way to gain an overall picture of the condition of the collections. The method based on random sampling, originally developed at Stanford University, aims to provide information on the condition of the collections and the extent of the damage as well as offer new insights into why and how objects deteriorate. In the Helsinki Survey we apply a "stratified sampling" technique. First a heterogeneous group of materials is divided into subgroups based on the material type. Then a set of unified criteria is selected to assess the condition of the materials so that the outcomes allow a meaningful comparison among different collections. The survey also provides us with information about the type and degree of damage to each subgroup. At the same time we can record the impact of environmental conditions and use on the condition of the collections, provided such statistics exist.
The purpose of a condition survey is not to pick individual items for conservation treatment, microfilming or digitisation; rather, its aim is to assess the type and degree of damage exhibited in the surveyed materials and, by doing so, help a library improve its long-term planning and make informed decisions on the best use of the available resources, for example, the development of which preservation methods it should invest in now and in the future. We can only make long-term plans on how best to preserve our collections and serve the researchers if we have a clear picture about the condition of the collections at present.
A Tool for the Preservation Sector
Large-scale condition surveys have been conducted, for example, in Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain and the United States (Yale, Stanford). In the condition survey carried out at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the National Library of the Netherlands, the surveyed materials were divided into four groups: monographs, periodicals, newspapers and legal deposit materials. At Yale the division was based on different library sites and collections. The purpose was to reap real benefit from the surveys, and care was taken to ensure that even the smallest material groups were represented.
The aim of the first stage of the Helsinki Survey was to chart the National Collection from 1810 to 1944. It was during this period that paper made from rags was giving way to more acidic paper made from wood pulp. Acidic groundwood paper "destroys itself" considerably faster than rag paper. Many other countries have also shown interest in doing condition surveys on paper made from wood.
A condition survey is an effective planning and decision-making tool for the preservation sector. The preservation activities of Helsinki University Library have expanded, and we now have the capacity to respond not only to the preservation needs of our own library but also to those of the country's library sector as a whole, for example, through microfilming and digitisation. To do this we need to know on which areas of our preservation activities we should focus to guarantee best possible results.
The Surveyed Paper Acidic and Brittle
The condition survey carried out at Helsinki University Library was an adaptation of the random sample surveys developed at the universities of Stanford and Yale. Our survey consisted of the National Collection's non-fiction from 1810 to 1944 and fiction from 1810 to 1972, in all 140,000 volumes.
Table 1.The condition survey materials: holdings of Helsinki University Library, the National Library of Finland
Distribution of the surveyed material
Total number of volumes
Because of various manufacturing methods and ageing, paper is often acidic and therefore subject to becoming brittle. Paper degradation may also be caused by ink corrosion. We measured the pH of the pages and performed a folding endurance test by hand, thus gaining a clear picture about the degree of brittleness of paper and its durability when in use. The pH scale is logarithmic which means that every one-unit change in pH represents a ten-fold change in acidity or alkalinity. For example, a pH of 5 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 6, while a pH of 4 is a hundred times more acidic than a pH of 6.
The acidity of paper increases as it gets older, and so the process of deterioration gets underway. The survey found that in almost 100 per cent of the whole sample the paper was very acidic -that is, the pH value was less than 5.5. The pH value of neutral paper is 7.0. Of the volumes examined 50 per cent - every second volume - had a pH of less than 4.15.
The folding endurance test revealed that about 10 per cent of the volumes would not withstand future use at all (see table 3).
If a damaged book is used, it will damage further. It is difficult if not impossible to, for example, rebind embrittled books and costly to repair them.
Damage Caused by Use
Damage to the covers, binding and paper of a book can be roughly divided into three categories: damage caused by use, damage caused by the preservation conditions and damage caused by the chemical-physical properties of paper.
Damage caused by use includes torn pages, missing pieces, stains, dirt and creases. Cover damage includes detached or missing covers and spines. When a book has no covers and spine, the text block has no protection against damage. Binding damage includes broken linings and threads that will result in detached, damaged or missing pages. These types of damage call for urgent repairs so that the loss of information can be prevented. Also large-scale and continuous self-service photocopying is a threat to the condition of embrittled books.
According to the survey 15.3 per cent of the pages had damage caused by use, the most common being torn pages and missing pieces. Damage to binding was found in 11.2 per cent of the volumes, while 6.0 per cent of the volumes had damaged text blocks.
The survey confirmed that damage to the covers and bindings increase paper damage caused by use. The surveyed material contained a lot of volumes that have been rebound into hard covers in the Library. The survey indicated that rebinding books into hard covers improves preservation and protects the text block from mechanical damage. Soft-cover books, on the other hand, are more likely to suffer from damage.
Table 2 Damage found in the condition survey
| || |
| || |
| || |
Non-fiction with Multiple Damage
The survey results were divided into groups by subject areas. In non-fiction the volumes in the worst condition were from the most heavily used group "Religion and church". Here the extent of the damage was well above average. Overall, the number of volumes requiring urgent action amounts to some 44,000 volumes, of which 20 to 30 per cent have already suffered from use. Often the volumes showed signs of damage from all damage categories. Additional condition surveys are likely to increase the number of volumes requiring immediate action.
The National Library's collection of fiction is not as heavily used as the collection of non-fiction. Therefore it is in a better condition as a whole. The use of fiction has been consciously restricted: the reader must obtain a special permit before she is allowed to consult a book belonging to this category.
Table 3 Subject areas requiring urgent action
|Subject areas requiring urgent action|| Number |
| Metres |
| Damage |
| fire/ |
| Chemical |
|Religion and church||12,600||257||30.9%||10.8%||20.4%||6.2%||9.8%|
|Carelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic||2,400||77.5||26.9%||3.9%||19.2%||5.1%||0.0%|
|Schools and higher education institutions||2,400||52||26.3%||8.0%||11.1%||2.0%||2.0%|
|Linguistics,Book learning, Finnish folk poetry, Literary history and art, Philosophy||10,000||208||21.3%||7.5%||15.9%||3.9%||4.5%|
|Collected works and series||6,200||157||20.1%||9.9%||21.7%||1.9%||1.9%|
Book Handling Guidelines for Collections
Urgent action is called for by those book groups, or parts of them, that show damage to the paper, covers or binding and where the degree of damage is above average. This is because brittle paper and low pH will cause further damage to already damaged materials.
Although most of the damage is minor, even that poses a serious risk to books, and the damage will become more serious if the books are in use. A large number of volumes have already reached the stage that their use should be severely restricted.
We can restrict the use of books in poor or unstable condition by promoting their use in electronic format. This can be achieved by digitising them. This enables us to withdraw the original volume from circulation and so prevent further wear and tear. Some books benefit from conservation treatment, others must be microfilmed to ensure their long-term preservation, and for some putting them in archival boxes is enough.
The principles of prioritisation of our Digitisation and Preservation Programme are demand and condition, and they go hand in hand with each other. The materials in the greatest demand will become part of the digitisation programme.
We will lay down guidelines on the use of the National Collection based on the condition of the materials. Photocopying and reprographics services as well as the handling and use of books will be developed so that priority is given to the books.
Microfilming still remains the best alternative for the long-term preservation of the information content of the material under the greatest threat. A good example of this is the paper used for making newspapers which disintegrates within a couple of generations. New methods of colour microfilming enable us to preserve also coloured materials for the next 200 years at least.
For the most part conservation is done by hand. To deacidify paper mass deacidification systems have been developed. However, mass deacidification only removes acidity from paper; it does not make it more durable, nor does it repair any already existing mechanical damage. Because conservation treatment is slow and labour-intensive, it can only save a very small part of the material under the threat of deterioration.
Digitisation and Preservation Programme
Because preservation measures concern a vast number of volumes, we need more resources - both people and equipment - to realise them. The evaluation on how to implement the Digitisation and Preservation Programme will be made in 2004 jointly by the Library's management and the heads of the Collection, User and Preservation Services. As the condition survey progresses, we will evaluate the results and expand the Digitisation and Preservation Programme to include new groups of materials. Additional surveys will be carried out until we have surveyed all materials that need to be preserved in the long term. At the time of writing this article, spring 2004, we are conducting a survey of the Slavonic collection and are planning to draw a random sample from the collection from the period of the Swedish rule 1488-1810.
Majken Bremer-Laamanen, Heidi Törrönen, Maria Sorjonen, Minna Kaukonen
Conservator Heidi Törrönen, email email@example.com