Communion Of Dreams

But will it last?
June 2, 2010, 8:37 am
Filed under: Book Conservation, MetaFilter

Interesting discussion on Meta Filter I thought I would share, about a change which is occurring in the publishing industry: the shift back to woodpulp paper. You can find it here: Take a stand for permanent paper in books.

Because this is my profession, I joined in the discussion. Here is the entirety of my initial comment:

Book & document conservator here – I had to weigh in on this.

I’ve worked on actual books which are more than a thousand years old. And individual document pages older than that.

You know what period of books and documents are in the worst shape? Post Civil War (US) items.

I have paper I like to hand around when I do presentations – looks as fresh and new as though it was made last week. That paper is over 500 years old. People are always astonished that it is in such good condition. That’s because we have been conditioned by experience to think that “old books/paper” means that it is fragile, breaking down.

What happened at the time of the Civil War? Paper making technology changed. Actually, it started to change before the war, but didn’t become widespread until after. I have worked on books which contained both the old stock and the new – and those parts of the book printed on the new stock are in horrible shape, right next to sections of the book which are almost pristine.

The technology change was to using woodpulp-based paper. Which is processed using an acid bath to remove non-cellulose material. The residual acid (and the lignin in paper which isn’t processed as much) breaks down the cellulose structures, making the fiber length shorter and more fragile.

This process wasn’t understood until the 1950s. Once acid was identified as a culprit, more effort was made to change the technology of papermaking again, switching over to an alkali based method. This left residual alkali in the paper, which buffered against lignin breakdown (which causes secondary acid contamination) and environmental contaminants.

It looked in the 70’s and 80’s like we had beat the problem. By the 90’s most of the paper made in North America was based on alkali-based technology. Curiously, this was also good for the environment, because the effluent from those plants was easier to clean up as well.

This shift back to woodpulp, acidic paper is not a good move. Except for future conservators. For them, it is job security. I doubt they will appreciate the effort.
posted by Shadan7 at 6:18 AM on June 2 [+] [!]

Just thought I’d share.

Jim Downey