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section heading icon     loss

This page considers the loss of books through language death, war, decomposition of works on acid paper and neglect.


It covers -

A perspective is provided by discussion here and here.

section marker     introduction


It is a commonplace that content on the web is ephemeral and that despite the efforts of national/sectoral archives many sites, documents (including major publications by government agencies, businesses and NGOs), audio and video recordings will disappear forever. Proponents of the net as a 'universal library', accessible by anyone at any time, have frequently underrated challenges to the longterm survival of offline media and ongoing access to that media. (Others, of course, have recognised the seriousness of some challenges and responded with plans for comprehensive migration of library collections to the net through large-scale digitisation of university libraries and through the development of international OPACs underpinned by standard metadata.)

We can identify four broad challenges to printed text and paper-based archives –

  • Language death – disappearance of a readership – through for example genocide or benign abandonment of a tongue as a result of social changes (both challenges affecting the wealth of literature in Yiddish) – deprives books of the advocacy needed in combating other challenges
  • War and terror – destruction of text in order to demoralise a population, as collateral damage in armed conflict or as an integral part of ‘ethnic cleansing’ (destroying memory along with the people)
  • Chemistry – the self-destruction of paper attributable to the chemical characteristics of the paper and other entities in its environment such as rusting paperclips or adhesive tape
  • Neglect - failure to provide adequate protection for items, including archival storage and security, or merely to retain items.

section marker     language

A perspective is provided by Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2000) by Daniel Nettle & Suzanne Romaine, Endangered Languages (Oxford: Berg 1991) edited by Robert Robins & Eugenius Uhlenbeck and the broader Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (London: HarperCollins 2005) by Nicholas Ostler.

Some cultures have gone forever. For others rescue efforts are underway. One example is described in Aaron Lansky's charming Outwitting History: How a Young Man Rescued A Million Books and Saved a Vanishing Civilisation (London: Souvenir Press 2005)

section marker     war and terror

In 1992 'ethnic cleansing' in Sarajevo was accompanied by deliberate destruction of the National & University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with loss of over 1.5 million books and manuscripts. As noted elsewhere in discussion of censorship, Pol Pot had earlier sought to free Kampuchea from improper ideas and attitudes by eliminating both Cambodia's libraries and librarians.

There has been surprisingly little written about biblioclasm or libricide. Recent works include Rebecca Knuth's Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century (New York: Praeger 2003), The Holocaust & the Book: Destruction & Preservation (Amherst: Uni of Massachusetts Press 2001) edited by Jonathan Rose, Lost Libraries: The Destruction of Ancient Book Collections since Antiquity (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan 2004) edited by James Raven and Fernando Baez' A Universal History of the Destruction of Books (London: Atlas 2008).

The Holocaust & the Book is of particular merit; it can be supplemented by studies such as Stanislao Pugliese's 1999 Bloodless Torture: The Books of the Roman Ghetto under the Nazi Occupation (PDF). Initial Nazi immolation of 'entartete' print features here and in Guy Stern's Nazi Book Burning & the American Response (Detroit: Wayne State University 1990). We have not sighted

Attitudes towards biblioclasm are highlighted in Marc Drogin's Biblioclasm: The Mythical Origins, Magic Powers & Perishability of the written word (Savage: Rowman & Littlefield 1989) and - perhaps more memorably - in Elias Canetti's masterwork Auto-da-fe (London: Cape 1972). A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World (New York: HarperCollins 2003) by Nicholas Basbanes and Library: An Unquiet History (New York: Norton 2003) by Matthew Battles consider the durability of individual works and collections. Holbrook Jackson's quirky The Fear of Books (Bloomington: Indiana Uni Press 2001), like his The Anatomy of Bibliomania and and Charles Gillett's Burned books: neglected chapters in British history and literature (New York: Columbia Uni Press 1932), offers another view of western attitudes.

Statistics are provided in UNESCO's Lost Memory - Libraries and Archives Destroyed in the Twentieth Century (RTF), which notes the absence of attention to events such as the 1988 fire that damaged or destroyed around 3.6 million books in the Academy of Sciences Library in St Petersburg.


section marker     chemistry

Much of the world's printed heritage - in particular minor newspapers and journals - is under threat because of the physical characteristics of the paper on which the print resides, rather than than because of action by terrorists and armies or contingencies such as flood and fire that affect a particular repository.

In good conditions - for example low humidity and few temperature fluctuations - paper produced prior to the steam age will last indefinitely. Successful efforts to increase supply and reduce costs saw replacement of rag paper with paper made from wood pulp. That innovation encourage mass literacy and the proliferation of content that people in advanced economies take for granted. However, the technology used for that paper production means that much of the paper is self-destructing, taking with it the books, newspapers, pamphlets and other content.

Institutions are therefore grappling with a range of responses, from individual and mass deacidification to microfilming and digital copying.

The main reason for the deterioration of much modern paper is that it is acidic, a condition caused primarily by use of alum-rosin compounds as sizing agents - ie to produce a smooth white surface and by making fibre fiber surfaces hydrophobic ensure that the paper does not act as blotting paper - during the manufacturing process. The sizing interacts with moisture and heat to produce sulphuric acid; that acid destroys the paper, which in extreme examples turns into flakes or even dust when disturbed (eg when a page is turned, a book is taken from a shelve or file is handled).

Much paper that was intended for newsprint rather than books is threatened by a different problem. It was derived from cheap softwood, mechanically processed and roughly bleached without an effort to produce a neutral pH. Over time that paper becomes structurally weaker than that used in many books. Natural chemicals within the former 'tree flakes' break down to form peroxides and acids that cause disintegration of the paper and adverse reactions with ink. Disintegration is accelerated by light, heat, moisture and wide temperature fluctuations.

Deterioration of paper and of objects such as books can more broadly be accelerated through rough handling (one archivist quipped to us that dropping librarians, files and books on the floor tends to cause damage), exposure to atmospheric pollutants, contact with other entities (rusting paperclips, corrosive adhesive tape, acetate photographic and motion picture film) and inappropriate bindings, animal pests and their droppings, and microorganisms such as mould.






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version of September 2008
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