by Ned Potter

The LIFE-Share Project is currently nearing the end of its Case Studies phase. There is one Case Study for each partner institution, and the Leeds example focuses on digitisation as support for collection management. In most libraries there are many collections which are in a state of some disrepair – LIFE-Share aims to investigate whether the most efficient long-term strategy for such collections is to physically arrest their decline through conservation, or to digitally preserve them.  Once the Case Study is complete it will be written up and published via the Outputs page of our website – a review of the recent Digitisation Services inventory process is available already, via the Outputs drop-down menu.

As part of the Case Study, the Library’s Conservation Officer is examining a sample of 200 books and grading their condition. The National Preservation Office’s Preservation Assessment Survey for Libraries and Archives recommends a sample of 400 to get a true representation of any given collection; however, due to time restraints and the fact that we’ve artificially limited our sample anyway (see below), we’ve opted for half that number. (For more info in the preservation assessment survey, email the National Preservation Office on A lot goes into this process, but at the risk of simplifying it the end result is each book being given a ‘condition and usability’ rating from 1 to 4, with 1 representing a monograph that requires no work, and 4 representing a monograph which requires immediate attention and handling restrictions. The results have been revealing, and actually quite disconcerting.

The collection we chose is of French volumes published between the late 19th Century and the 1970s. We knew there were a lot of old volumes among this collection, many of which were printed on acid-paper – acid paper is a major problem as it causes collections to deteriorate, eventually making the paper so brittle it crumbles. We chose a fairly arbitrary cut-off date of 1970 for the sample as we were interested in the condition of the older and sometimes rarer material, and acid paper is less of an issue in newer volumes. Despite these slightly artificial conditions we’ve put upon generating the sample, the 200 items (chosen at random by a computer from over 6000 in the actual collection) is in fact fairly representative of many of our collections at Leeds. It was not chosen because the collection is in a dire state of disrepair.

Picture of a book shelf
A snapshot of the French collection on the shelves

The vast majority of the sample have been examined and graded, and so far not one book has been put into Category 1. So all require attention to some extent. In fact, more than half (52%) have been put into Category 3 and 4, requiring immediate attention, and being unsuitable to be left on the shelves as they currently are. Clearly this is not an ideal state of affairs…

What is striking about this process is not just the fact that the books are in a worse state than might have been predicted, but also how they don’t look bad at all to the untrained eye. Of course the very old volumes look suitably decrepit, such as this one:

Picture of a book
An extreme example

…and many are in protective envelopes, but much of the collection looks absolutely fine on the shelves. What the spine doesn’t reveal, however, is just how yellowing, brittle, and sometimes crumbling-to-the-touch the actual pages are. The acidity of the paper is well disguised by the robust covers of the books, many of which have been rebound (and perhaps consequently thought of as ‘fixed’ when in fact they were still declining in condition).

This 1954 example looks innocuous enough, but open it up and the pages are yellowing and fragile:

picture of a book

A page from a book, in poor condition

So, even realising something may be amiss requires taking the books down from the shelves and examining them properly. To assess them fully as we have been doing, has taken around 7 hours per 100 books, when you add up the time it takes to locate, collect and deliver the books to the conservation unit, then examine their condition and note it on a chart. At that rate of assessment, to do Leeds’ entire collections would take over 25 years of all-day, every-day work! That’s an enormous amount of time, just to find out if something needs preservation and if so, how – the actual time taken to conserve or digitise the item would have to be added on to that.

Over all, then, it’s worth having a look and seeing what is really on your shelves. It might take a while to do, but the sooner you catch the deteriorating volumes, the easier it is to save them.