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From the Sunday Chicago Tribune


By Ray Moseley
Tribune Foreign Correspondent
June 4, 2000
LONDON -- Rick Brown once spent six months on a single book. Not reading it,
but restoring it.
Brown, a senior conservator at the British Library, is one of 70 experts
there who daily fight what seems a losing battle to preserve irreplaceable
volumes crumbling away from use and age.
The British Library, this country's equivalent of America's Library of
Congress, has 18 million volumes, and is the world's greatest repository of
works of immense historical value. Only a relatively small portion of its
volumes is in danger of disintegration, but with the collection constantly
growing, preservation of aging books is an almost Sisyphean task.
The library has launched an initiative called Adopt a Book to raise
additional funds for preservation from individuals and corporations around
the world. At a minimum, it hopes to spend $90,000 a year for two more
conservators who will work full-time on the project.
For as little as 15 pounds ($22), a donor can save a book for posterity and
have his or her name or a chosen message recorded on a permanent bookplate.
For 1,000 pounds ($1,470) a donor can choose an exact book to adopt.
"Our biggest problem is the sheer size of the task," said Michael Western,
head of preservation at the library. "If we stopped today acquiring new
material, there's enough conservation work to keep our staff busy for the
next 100 years."
He said the Adopt a Book scheme was suggested by pupils from a school in
Surrey, south of London, who were familiar with the London Zoo's Adopt an
Animal program.
The fact a book can take six months to restore illustrates the complexity of
the task. Brown spent that much time on one that was literally falling apart,
Wynkyn de Worde's "Tullius Offyce" published in 1534. It was, he said, the
first Latin-English dictionary published in Britain.
De Worde (real name Jan Van Wynkyn) was an Alsatian-born printer who
published at least 600 titles in London and in 1534 became the first printer
in England to use italic type.
Brown is working on a 1765, two-volume edition of Henry Fielding's classic
novel, "The History of Tom Jones." Other conservators have cleaned the pages
with an alkaline solution, and his job is to replace worn bindings and put
the title on them with gold leaf. It is a four-day job for each volume.
Brown has been a conservator for 16 years and said some of his colleagues
have been on the job more than 40 years. "It's not like a job. It becomes
like a hobby," he said.
He reckons the most valuable book he has handled was the 16th Century Tyndale
Bible, which the library purchased a few years ago for $1.5 million from the
Bristol Baptist Church.
When King Henry VIII ordered Bibles burned because the Vatican had refused to
sanction his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, William Tyndale secretly printed
his English translation. It became the basis of the King James Version.
Tyndale was seized in Antwerp, Belgium, condemned for heresy and burned at
the stake. His Bible is now among the treasures on permanent display at the
British Library.
The library's preservation work has been eased since it moved to a new
building four years ago. Its old quarters in the British Museum were not
air-conditioned, which meant books were subject to deterioration from
Among the library's treasures are the King's Library, a collection of 60,000
volumes assembled by George III in the 18th Century, and the Grenville
Library of 20,000 volumes, donated by Thomas Grenville, a member of
Parliament in the early 19th Century.
The oldest dated printed book in the library is a Chinese work of the 9th
Century, found in a cave at Duhuang by the British scholar-explorer Sir Airel
Stein in 1900. Called "The Diamond Sutra," it is a Buddhist scroll that is
undergoing restoration.
"The Chinese didn't understand its value, and Stein paid a derisory sum for
it," said Bart Smith, a library spokesman.
Western, the preservation head, said the value of historic works such as this
is incalculable. "What price would you put on a first-folio work by
Shakespeare?" he said. "I suppose whatever a rich American would be willing
to pay for it."
The library owns six first-folio Shakespeares.
The British Library also owns one of the two sets of the 19th Century Great
Chinese Encyclopedia in existence. The other is in Beijing.
During World War II, the library lost hundreds of thousands of books to
German bombs. Fortunately, the greatest treasures had been removed to distant
corners of Wales, so they remain intact.
One odd thing about the preservation of books is that those published in the
18th Century or earlier often are in better condition than more recent books.
"In the early days of printing, a book was a luxury item for the monied
classes only, to be cherished and preserved like a Rolls-Royce," Western
said. "The paper, made of rags, was of high quality.
"As education expanded in the mid-19th Century and the demand for books grew,
the supply of rags was not adequate. So they turned to wood pulp, which is
very acidic. Even books that are only 20 years old can become very brittle as
a result. It wasn't until after World War II that the quality of paper used
in books improved."
To deacidify paper, conservators immerse a book in water that contains an
alkaline magnesium bicarbonate solution.
To help catch up with its backlog of preservation needs, the library is
considering the adoption of an American system for deacidifying books in
bulk. It is called Bookkeeper and is in use at the Library of Congress. Not
only does it speed up the work, but also reduces costs to about $15 per book.
The library also has digitized some old books so that readers can touch a
computer screen and bring up pages. This was done with an 11th Century volume
of "Beowulf," and it has enabled scholars to read some things on the pages
that were not visible to the naked eye.
Some books that are in poor condition also have been put on microfilm.
Western said the Library of Congress uses microfilm much more than the
British Library does. "We have more historical artifacts that need preserving
in their own right," he said.

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