5.4.7: 1910 - heden - The survival chance of books

Never before was cultural heritage destroyed on such a grand scale as in the twentieth century. During two world wars, Russian and Chinese revolutions and various smaller international conflicts and civil wars many collections were lost.

A poignant example is the university library of Louvain which was completely destroyed in 1914 by a German bombardment. After the First World War, the library was rebuilt with international aid, but during the German invasion of Belgium in 1940 history repeated itself. Again, the library went up in flames, destroying the entire collection of 900,000 volume, including 800 manuscripts and all the incunabula.

Paper deterioration as a result of acidification also remained a threat. Although the worst paper dates back to the period before 1950, the paper quality of many publications from the period after 1950 is not much better. For the production of paperbacks, juvenile literature, brochures, marginalia, magazines and newspapers wood-pulp paper was and is still used.

Not until the last decades of the twentieth century do we see an improvement in the quality of paper, because, under pressure from environmental legislation, less acidic chemicals were permitted in the manufacturing of paper. The use of permanent paper was still limited.

The twentieth century also brought positive developments. Many book collections belonging either to small libraries or in private ownership, often kept in the wrong environment, were moved to larger, better-equipped institutions.

Especially in the second half of the twentieth century, institutions which are responsible for the maintenance of our paper heritage, such as libraries with a preservation function and archives, began to realise that in order to preserve books, investments in mass preservation were needed. Research centres, such as TNO in Delft and the ICN in Amsterdam and organisations such as the CNC (a cooperation between the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and the National Archives) surveyed the various threats to the existence of books and made recommendations for measures to be taken. New library buildings and storage libraries were built in such a way as to create the ideal conditions for the preservation of books and regulations were drawn up for the use of vulnerable and special materials.

Automation made large-scale and effective damage inventories possible, so that institutions were able to carry out focused preservations policies, with the national preservation programmes 'Deltaplan' and 'Metamorphoze' as the driving forces.

New techniques such as deacidification, paper splitting, the manufacturing of high-quality long-life microfilms and digitalisation made it possible to increase the chances of the survival of books considerably.

In late 2000, the Dutch branch of the international culture protection organisation Blue Shield was established, a co-operative of the large international umbrella organisations of museum, monument preservation, archives and libraries, which aims to protect Dutch cultural heritage against the threats resulting from natural disasters, molestation, and wars and to organise national and international aid.

Whether the book will also survive the twenty-first century is anybody's guess. Twentieth-century developments such as the Internet and e-books can herald the end of the book as a medium. Especially where information speed is concerned, electronic data carriers are increasingly given preference. More and more magazines are already being published in an electronic format.

However, there are a fair number of advantages to books. They are ready to be used immediately, easy to carry and the reader can decide how, where and at what speed to use them. Thanks to these user-friendly characteristics, books have so far been able to maintain their position alongside the new media.

author: Dennis Schouten

The survival chance of books