Preserving Brittle Books: Benefits for the Digital Age

By Yvonne Carignan, Head, Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University

Brittle books programs, by which I mean strategic approaches to dealing with brittle paper and other heavily damaged publications in research library collections, have long been a facet of preservation management that is close to my heart. Years ago, involvement with the University of Maryland Libraries’ brittle books program showed me how important it is to healthy research collections to address books with irreparable damage effectively. In that university, before implementation of brittle books programming, damaged books with paper too brittle to rebind backlogged with mutilated, moldy, marked up, and other publications ruined beyond repair. Implementing formal brittle books workflows and decision-making meant a steady stream of content returned to users via preservation photocopies, enclosures, microforms, or purchased replacement copies. Dealing with brittle books systematically also leads logically to damage prevention strategies such as sound shelf preparation routines, care and handling training, climate-controlled off-site storage for low use titles, and mass de-acidification programs.

Although digital reformatting was not among our menu of brittle books options in the early to mid-1990s in my institution, the decision-making processes for both analog and digital brittle books solutions retain similar logic. For example, part of the process includes finding out what other copies exist by investigating one’s own institution, network, or national catalog before taking further steps to preserve content and/or the artifact. Another abiding tradition in the preservation field is leadership in creating and upholding excellent standards for capture in reformatting. Excellent microfilm created in research library preservation and brittle books programs from past decades now offer cost-effective means for creation of digital access today. In an era of mass digitization by for-profit entities, the preservation community’s expertise guarantees digital copy creation that meets high standards for completeness and legibility. Brittle books programs, then, contribute well-captured digital surrogates to the common pool now building to make brittle book content accessible digitally.

The current interest in brittle books and mass de-acidification programs, as reflected by the recent ALA Preservation Section program “Brittle Books Strategies for the Twenty-first Century,” discussions at interest groups, an ALCTS e-forum, and the McClurken survey results, provide evidence of the continuing contributions of brittle books programs. The question “why maintain brittle books programming in the twenty-first century” can be answered by considering how traditional benefits continue to be valid in maintaining research collections into the future. Professional preservation brittle books programs offer the following for well-managed research collections:

  • Responsibly and efficiently managed workflows for heavily damaged book collections;
  • Formal collaboration mechanisms across preservation and collection management units for effective decision making;
  • Safety nets for determining if brittle publications are intrinsically valuable artifacts or simply useful for content;
  • Expertise for creation of excellent surrogates, now often digital, for brittle books, contributing to institutional—and ultimately pooled—digital access.

Brittle Books programs thus continue to be a critical piece of healthy preservation and collection management for research collections in the twenty-first century.

Learn more about the recent Brittle Books programs in this issue: