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Susan Macicak,
Collection Development Officer

Merry Burlingham,
Chief Bibliographer

Carolyn Cunningham,
Collection Administration Librarian

Mary Rader,
Global Studies Coordinator

Dale Correa,
Middle Eastern Studies Librarian

Bonnie Brown Real,
Collection and Consortia Assessment Coordinator

Lexie Thompson Young,
UT System Licensing Coordinator

Emilie Algenio,
Consortia Resources Coordinator

Lisa Aguilar,
Library Specialist

Brittle and Irreparable Collection Materials:
A Joint Preservation and Collection Development Working Plan

The Brittle Book Problem

From the early 1800s much of the paper that has been used in the world has been manufactured through processes that leave an acidic content in the paper. The acid breaks down the cellulose fibers of the paper and, with sufficient time, the paper becomes brittle to the point that it breaks when folded. Surveys conducted in academic and research libraries over the past fifteen years have confirmed that there is an enormous brittle book problem. It is estimated that nearly eight million books in North American research libraries are embrittled because they are printed on acidic paper.

Equally threatening to information access is the growing number of books that have, through normal use, been damaged beyond repair. It is likely that libraries will witness this latter scenario escalate as dollars for new acquisitions dwindle and retrospective collections receive heavier use. The problem of chemical and physical deterioration is also widespread in non-paper media (e.g. motion picture film, sound recordings and videotape). The ultimate result is that strong research collections are eroding.

The Preservation Strategy

Preserving embrittled or irreparable materials is a significant challenge. Paper that has deteriorated to the point that it breaks when folded cannot withstand the manipulation required for binding or normal repairs. For most books which are too brittle or have become so damaged that they cannot be repaired by routine methods, the best preservation option is to purchase a reprint or, when one isn't available, to reformat the damaged text onto a more permanent, durable format.

Preservation-quality microfilming and photocopying have been the preferred surrogate formats to date. Microfilming preserves the text of a volume on film; photocopying provides a bound facsimile of the original and is an appropriate option when color needs to be preserved, when a text is used frequently (e.g. a reference text) or the subject content is not conducive to use in a film format (e.g. popular fiction). When a volume is microfilmed, the master negative is stored under archival conditions to ensure a life span of several hundred years, while new positive (use) copies can be produced on demand. Digital media will provide new options for providing surrogates for brittle or irreparable collection materials as libraries gain experience with associated selection, production, management and archiving issues.

University of Texas Libraries Collections

Because the collections are relatively young and have, for the most part, been stored in environmental conditions conducive to their longevity, the University of Texas Libraries does not face an embrittlement crisis like that faced by older research libraries. Approximately 18% of the University of Texas Libraries collections are brittle; the preponderance of these items are classified in Dewey.

Because it would be prohibitively expensive to replace or reformat all items in the collection that are brittle or irreparably damaged, University of Texas Libraries preservation efforts in this area target primarily the needs of collection items that are currently being used. In PCL, brittle and irreparable items are identified by Preservation Department staff as they perform routine reviews of collection items that have been set aside by Circulation Services staff because they were returned to the library in damaged condition. Branch library staff will identify brittle and irreparable items in much the same way.

General Process and Outcome

Generally, we cannot provide good service to patrons when library materials in demand are in poor physical condition. Therefore, it is recommended that bibliographers review currently used brittle and irreparable collection materials. Items will be reviewed for their importance to the University of Texas Libraries collections; preservation treatment decisions will be made for titles to be retained. An item's relevance to University of Texas Libraries collections will be based on current collection development policies and on the artifactual value policy (See Policy #1: Materials Requiring Special Protection and Preservation and Collection Management Guidelines: Bibliographer Review).

Items in the brittle/irreparable condition category will be reviewed with the intent that they will not be returned to the shelf in their current condition. Decisions to return items to the shelf "as is" must be adequately justified.

Brittle or irreparably damaged serials will require a similar review process. Bibliographers will need to evaluate holdings and determine the disposition or replacement of circulating serial titles. However, due to the complex issues surrounding serials, a framework of review for each individual title may need to be explored.


As a general working plan, brittle and damaged gift volumes shall not be added to the University of Texas Libraries collections (See Preservation and Collection Management Guidelines: Assessing the Physical Condition of Gift Materials for Selection, for decision-making regarding the physical condition of a gift item). The cost of providing access to brittle and damaged library materials is high, so high that we can scarcely address the needs of collections in current use. However, there may be cases where a gift item's intellectual content or archival value outweighs its poor physical condition. In these cases, the accepting bibliographer must make a monetary commitment to make the gift items serviceable. For example, when published volumes are in question, the bibliographer should attempt to identify funds to purchase a copy of the title that is in good condition or, if an acceptable copy is not available, to have the item reformatted. In cases of a gift of an archival collection with significant artifactual value, bibliographers should consider asking the donor for processing funds or commit part of their allocation to the preservation of the collection.

Bibliographer Role in Review for Preservation

Bibliographer decisions regarding preservation of brittle and irreparable materials are made within the context of subject collection development policies and University of Texas Libraries' policies and guidelines for replacing (#21), withdrawing (#18), duplicating (#8) and transferring materials (#14). For PCL collection items, Research Services Division staff will initially review them and make preservation decisions when possible. Items requiring more in-depth review will be forwarded with preservation treatment option recommendations to individual subject bibliographers for final decision-making.
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