When faulty plumbing caused flooding in the basement of UCLA's University Research Library last spring, Christopher Coleman donned plastic gloves and began the painstaking task of salvaging the scores of books that suffered water damage.
One by one, he placed the books in front of a large fan for drying. He took other books, those that could not be dried immediately, home with him to keep in his freezer to prevent mildew.
But Coleman, a soft-spoken, meticulous bibliophile from England who was recently appointed UCLA's head of library preservation, is responsible for more than emergency repairs.
Most of the time Coleman is looking for ways to save potentially millions of university books that are slowly turning to dust as a result of decay, mildew and insect infestation, including termites.
It is a monumental task involving up to 3.5 million books that--like most materials published after the mid-19th Century--are printed on highly acidic paper that self-destructs over time. The books threatened by acid decay represent 70% of UCLA's collection of 5.5 million volumes.
"It's painstaking, it can be tedious," Coleman said. "One is frequently working against time."
A recent survey of UCLA's libraries showed that 8% of the university's books were brittle, Coleman said.
Coleman is preparing a proposal to start a comprehensive book preservation effort combining the resources of UCLA's 19 libraries. He is finishing work on a preliminary version of the proposal that will be presented to UCLA Librarian Russell Shank in December, and plans to have a more detailed report completed by next June.
Although the mildew problem is less pervasive than acid decay, Coleman said, his preservation program will stress quick salvage efforts to dry books after floods or fires, when the water used to extinguish flames also threatens books.
Coleman said the program will probably include plans to educate library employees about book care and will call for a campus emergency plan to save books in case of disaster. He said he also intends to analyze air in the libraries for pollutants that damage books, and plans to set up a laboratory to study ways to prevent book decay.
He said it is too early to say how much the program will cost.
UCLA's book conservation program will be part of an overall effort by the University of California to preserve its collection of nearly 20 million volumes at its nine campuses. The effort, which began last year with a series of book preservation seminars sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, calls for preservation librarians to be employed at each campus to prepare detailed plans for saving books.
According to a 1985 survey of UC libraries, 16.4% of the system's books--more than 3 million volumes--were either close to disintegrating or were so brittle they could not be rebound. Another 16% were found to be in worse condition than the poorest quality newsprint.
The report concluded that more than one third of the system's books were endangered, an amount representing about $650 million of the university's $2-billion collection. The report also stated that $5 million to $6 million in books are permanently lost each year.
"Unless prompt action is taken," the survey concluded, "a major part of the scientific, cultural and historical record of our civilization will be lost. As a society we are rapidly losing our collective memory."
The biggest problem facing the UC system is book decay caused by acids that either occur naturally in wood pulp or that were introduced into the paper to keep ink from "feathering," or spreading. That process, called "sizing," binds cellulose in the paper with alum and rosin, which over time break up the chains of molecules that keep the paper together.
In addition to agents introduced in the sizing process, other acids derive from a substance in the pulp called lignin, which gives wood its characteristic hardness.
Coleman said most books published before the mid-19th Century were printed on handmade "rag" paper made of durable, non-acidic fiber plants. Also, printers in mountain towns often bleached paper in stream water that was rich in calcium, which neutralizes acids and produces stronger paper. Consequently, many books printed before the Industrial Age remain in excellent condition, whereas some books printed only 50 years ago are falling apart.
"The old papers did very well because they had the natural calcium built into them," Coleman said. "That's why the early book papers are so strong and show no signs of this browning."
A German science journal printed in 1923, for example, had turned brown and was so brittle that the corner of a page could be severed at the crease after folding. The journal must be kept in a special box to buy time as Coleman tries to find a way to prevent it from turning into dust.