Preservation of Library Materials at Columbia

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES, Wednesday, April 18, 2001 - Preservation of our books, other printed volumes, and our collections of archival and audiovisual materials now and for the future is a core value for the Columbia University Libraries. It is our stated goal to keep materials currently in usable form, and to prevent as far as possible deterioration of all library materials for the sake of later generations. Library materials are of no value if no one can use them. Ironically, it is through use that materials become worn out and damaged.

The Libraries' preservation activity includes improving the temperature and humidity conditions under which materials are stored, encouragement of careful handling by staff and library patrons, maintenance of a disaster response team to deal with floods and other crises, and, finally, treatment of damage materials. Our preservation policies can be viewed at

Materials which circulate or are used in-house are checked for condition before reshelving and set aside for preservation action if they are damaged. Whenever possible within reasonable financial limits, the original item will be repaired or rebound, and returned to the shelf. Close to 9,000 items were repaired last year in the Libraries' Conservation Laboratory or by external services.

Brittle paper is a particular problem because it is much weaker than normal paper. When handled carefully, brittle items can continue to be used. But when treated roughly, brittle paper breaks easily and edges of pages crumble away. The page may break off at the inner margin if the page is caused to bend sharply -- as when someone pushes down heavily on a book during photocopying. After a page has broken away from the book, there is a much greater chance of further breaking or complete loss if the page falls out of the book.

Unfortunately, once brittle paper has broken, it cannot be repaired satisfactorily because it will continue to break away from the mended area. When a book with broken brittle pages is returned at circulation, the Libraries reviews it and decides on the most appropriate among several preservation options. The Libraries will purchase a replacement copy if available, although unfortunately most brittle books are no longer in print; however, reprints or later editions may be available.

In most cases where there is no replacement the Libraries will either create a photocopy on permanent paper or create a preservation microfilm. After copying, if the book can usefully be put back on the shelf, if there are color or oversize plates or a noteworthy binding, the Libraries will often create a custom-fitted box for the book. If there are no physical features of interest and the book is severely damaged, the Libraries may decide to withdraw and dispose of the book. The Libraries' general policy is to return materials to the shelf whenever feasible. Books are filmed intact whenever possible to minimize any further damage.

Microfilm is an important option for preservation because preservation microfilm, when correctly made and when stored according to official national standards, will last several hundred years. Moreover, additional copies can easily and cheaply be made from the preservation negative for other libraries and for individual researchers.

Because much poor-quality microfilm had been made previously, in the late 1970s the Research Libraries Group (RLG), with Columbia's Preservation Division as a leading participant, developed guidelines for making microfilm bibliographically complete by multiple checks that all pages and parts had been filmed, and technically correct by testing of density, resolution, and chemical residues. Columbia and most other libraries and reputable microfilming agencies adhere to the RLG Guidelines, and the National Endowment for the Humanities requires that any institution receiving funds for microfilming must adhere to the guidelines and must store the negatives correctly. Columbia's preservation negatives are stored in a climate-controlled vault in Pennsylvania specifically designed for archival storage of microfilm.

For further information on preservation at Columbia, see