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Culture

Acid to Acid, Dust to Dust

In the labyrinth-like archives of the country's libraries, millions of books are slowly crumbling to dust. The culprit: acid and the greediness of 19th century book publishers.

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The beginning of the end

The beginning of the end came as early as 1850.

In the 1840s, printers began discovering acid-treated paper as the most inexpensive way to print books. Soon, the papyrus and cotton paper developed by the Chinese, which could hold for more than 1,000 years, was phased out as publishers followed the lessons of simple economics.

Fast-forward to 2003, where Germany's libraries find themselves in a crisis. More than 60 million books are in danger of crumbling and falling apart in the next 20 years because they were printed on acid-treated paper. Classics from the late 19th century as well as cheap science fiction from the 1970s face an early death.

The acid gradually breaks down the paper's cellulose fibers, yellowing the paper and, in humid and hot conditions, weakening it to the point where it crumbles like dust. Librarians in the southern United States first became aware of the problem in the 1960s and quickly set about recording works on microfilm.

No funds to save classics

Processes that remove the acid have been developed, but these tend to cost a lot of money. Berlin Library estimates the cost for each book at €10 ($11), or €30 per kilogram ($33 for every two pounds).

Microfilming lasts several hundred years but costs even more than acid removal.

"Roughly estimated, you would have to pay five or six times as much" to microfilm a book as to remove the acid, said Hermann Leskien, the general director for the Bavarian Library in Munich.

The costs have proved prohibitive for German libraries, which aren't as well-funded as libraries in the United States. In addition, the problem is compounded in Germany because there is no central register of books like the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. or the British Library in London.

These libraries "act like national archives. Basically it means, if you save them, then everything is saved," Leskien told DW-ONLINE.

On the contrary, Germany's literary wealth is spread across the country, prompting Leskien and others to organize a national "alliance" to preserve the ageing books. Leskien's library has even undertaken a sponsoring program. Those who donate more than €100 to save a book get their name inscribed on a book plate.