Why Do Library Materials Deteriorate?

The deterioration of library materials is caused by natural elements such as temperature and humidity extremes, light, pollutants in the air, mold, and pests. Their detrimental effects are usually gradual, cumulative, and irreversible. Some library materials deteriorate more quickly than others because they are made from materials that are inherently unstable, such as acidic paper, magnetic tape, and nitrate and cellulose-acetate base photographic film. Natural disasters such as fires and floods, and building problems such as plumbing failures and roof leaks take their toll on library collections in a more immediate way.

Avoidable Damage

People also contribute to the deterioration of library materials. Although wear and tear from normal handling and use is inevitable, much of the damage that occurs could be avoided. And although some damage to library materials is willful--such as cutting pages out of books and underlining passages of text—most damage is unintentional, and is the result of uninformed or thoughtless practices on the part of patrons or staff. To be truly effective in preserving the collections over time, preservation-conscious practices need to be part of the everyday routines and habits of library staff and users.

What Can Be Done to Prevent Deterioration and Damage?

The most important preservation efforts are those that prevent damage and slow the rate of deterioration. Our preventive efforts include providing a safe and secure storage environment with temperature and humidity controls and fire protection; disaster preparedness; and promoting the careful handling and use of the collections by patrons and staff.

Although the Preservation staff can repair many damaged materials, some damage cannot be repaired, or can only be repaired at great cost. And it is not always possible to replace irretrievably damaged materials--either because they are no longer in print, or because the cost is prohibitive. Therefore, preventing damage to collections is a crucial part of the Library's preservation strategy.

Each time that a collection item is handled is an opportunity--either to protect it, or contribute to its demise.

Library materials are handled multiple times--both by staff and patrons--each time they are used. Materials are taken from the shelves, perhaps read over lunch, bookmarked, photocopied, carried in backpacks, the trunks of cars, stored on floors or on radiators, and returned in book drops. Library staff collect materials from the book drops, transport them through the library, and reshelve them. The cycle of handling is repeated every time an item is used. If careful handling practices are observed, Library staff and patrons can contribute greatly to the long-term preservation of the Library's most valuable resource--its collection.

 What Can Staff Do to Help Preserve Library Materials?

What Can Patrons Do to Help Preserve Library Materials?


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Last modified: March 16, 2009