The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 11, Number 2
Mar 1987


Library Journal Attacks LC

The September 15 Library Journal Carried A Hostile and uninformed article by Senior Editor Karl Nyren, entitled "The DEZ Process and the Library of Congress." It can be taken as a cautionary example of how wrong anyone can be when they venture into areas outside their range of expertise.

Nyren feels that LC has been deceiving the public and Congress: its real purpose in developing a mass deacidification process using diethyl zinc has been to push it as a prototype for world use--not to deacidify its own books. LC, he says, deliberately misled Congress in order to get the $11.5 million for its deacidification plant: it gave the impression that it was going to use the DEZ process to preserve the 13 million books now in its collection, whereas the plant's capacity will be too small to do much more than keep up with incoming books. He sees NASA not as a rather inept contractor, but as a white knight that blew up the pilot plant at the Goddard base on February 20, 1986, because it "found the safety factors unacceptable." the so-called demolition "may have averted a truly massive explosion."

It is far easier to make careless allegations than it is to disprove then. Perhaps it is even foolish to try to disprove them one by one, especially when there are as many as there are in this article (at least 13 on the first two pages) and when so many of them are only slurs, suggestions or vague statements that are impossible either to prove or to disprove. A very sane, effective rebuttal by William J. Welsh was published in the same journal, p. 62-63 of the January issue ("In Defense of DEZ: LC' s Perspective"). Nevertheless, certain facts of the case need to be made part of the record.

First of all, LC's motives. Nyren says he wants to know "why the Library of Congress has persisted in hacking the DEZ process." of course, it is to deacidify books and prolong their lives. If Nyren had been listening all these years, he would not now have the feeling that the truth has been kept from him. He would also not have gotten the impression that LC was going to use DEZ to rejuvenate the old hooks now in its collection. He would have realized that people in preservation have been talking about the millions of brittle books in library collections because if we do not start deacidifying on a large scale now, there will be even more millions of them in the future. And the DEZ process works. It works on a grand scale. Nyren calls the 1982 trial of 5000 books a failure because the gas did not fully deacidify more than half the books put in the chamber; but by this reasoning, the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk should be called a failure because the plane was not able to stay in the air for more than 12 seconds.

NASA did not blow up the pilot plant because of concern for safety with DEZ; it blew up a pipe, probably unnecessarily, because it thought there was some liquid DEZ pooled in it and building up pressure. The reason they got into this spot was that the system had not been designed with adequate pressure valves and monitoring instruments in the chamber or pipes. The test facility was designed by NASA, not LC.

To give an idea of Nyren's command of facts: He calls the Society of Archivists the "Society for Archives" and the Institute of Paper Conservation the "Institute for Paper Conservation"; he says, on page 35, that Peter Sparks said in 1983 that 6600 books had been treated by the process, but that this was "formerly referred to as 5000" books (untrue; there were 5000 books in one trial, but there had been other smaller trials); he says that George Kelly reported the 1982 trial at the meeting at Cambridge in 1980.

In his rebuttal, William J. Welsh says that diethyl zinc has been used for years in the manufacture of common plastics, including polyethylene, polypropylene and polyester. Like gasoline, natural gas and other industrial chemicals, it requires special handling. Because of the diversity of materials in the Library of Congress, gathered from all over the world, the deacidification process must be safe for unusual materials and soluble media; DEZ is safe enough to be used without any presorting procedures. Both current and retrospective materials will be treated. LC has been working on deacidification for over 10 years. Its purpose is "to preserve the national collections from the devastating effects of acid in paper, on a truly massive scale, and to do so without damaging the books in any way."

At this stage in the history of preservation, no one knows which deacidification method or methods will be the most widely used, or how many new ones will be invented in the future, but it really does not matter. All effective means should be used, as soon and as intensively as possible. The Library of Congress is a pioneer, and a world leader in both a formal and an informal sense. It deserves the support of all librarians, even--especially--those who are senior editors of the Library Journal, and who are the opinionmakers in the American library community.

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