The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 12, Number 2
Feb 1988


Government to Get Permanent Paper Standards

The U.S. Government, the largest publisher in the country and source of most of the documents that wind up in the National Archives, has its own paper standards for all the different types of paper used by government agencies. These standards say nothing about alkalinity or buffering for permanence; in fact, even for the finest papers they specify a minimum pH of only 5.5, and for most papers the minimum is 4.5 to 5.0. Even though papers able to last indefinitely under ideal conditions can be made on the acid side (Barrow initially specified a minimum of only 6.5), in today's polluted environment only the presence of carbonate buffering will prevent premature destruction, and this generally brings the paper pH into the 7.5-8.0 range.

The Joint Committee on Printing (JCP) of the U.S. Congress has the responsibility for issuing the standards, which are drawn up for it by a technical subcommittee. The standards are put to use by the multitudinous government agencies that buy office paper and publish books and leaflets. Whenever an agency in the Washington area has something to print, they send it to the Government Printing Office (GPO), which has the option of either printing it themselves or jobbing it out. So the picture is not simple. The GPO does not set the standards, as many people believe. The only tine they get to specify one paper rather than another is when the publishing agency has not already specified one, or has specified one that will not work.

For years many archivists and government document librarians have wished that the government paper standards would include permanence among the qualities it specifies. Now it appears that part of that wish will come true. The JCP is in the last stages of preparing a set of specifications for publications of enduring research value. These new specifications will be used alongside the existing standards. This is a great step forward.

The catch is: Who is going to decide which publications will have "enduring research value"? People in the publishing offices of government agencies are not in a position to observe patterns of use for research purposes, as librarians and archivists are. They would probably just keep on doing what they have been doing, unless there is a compelling reason to change.

In recognition of this implementation problem, a group of librarians (of whom the meat active members are Linda Nainis, Charles Kalina, Carolyn Morrow Matins and Jan Merrill-Oldham) have drafted a 10-page position paper, "Why GPO Should Use Alkaline Paper," for the use of the Documentary Library Council (an organization of libraries to which the government sends its publications to make then available to the public). This document describes the problem of crumbling collections and shows how to stop it at the source by adopting the use of alkaline paper. It quotes the ANSI standard's categories of publications of enduring value and urges the GPO to assume responsibility for encouraging use of permanent alkaline paper. Its concluding recommendations are:

Based on the available evidence, it appears to be advantageous for the Government Printing Office to take every appropriate action to substitute permanent, alkaline paper for acidic paper in printing the publications of the Federal government.

Representatives of the depository library community request that the Depository Library Council urge the Government Printing Office to explore this matter in depth, taking into account quality, economy, market, and other relevant factors; and to consider ways that responsibility for such a program could be assumed within a reasonable period of tine. Following its thorough investigation, the Government Printing Office should be requested to report its findings including any considerations that place the reaching of these objectives outside its authority to act. Appropriate complementary avenues might then be pursued to further the goal of increasing use of permanent paper for government publications.

This document was distributed as a background paper at the October meeting of the Depository Library Council. After discussion, the Council unanimously passed the following recommendation to the Public Printer (head of the GPO):

The Depository Library Council recommends that the Public Printer convey to the Joint Committee on Printing Council's concern for the archival value of government publications. Once a specification for paper permanence is formally adopted by the Joint Committee on Printing, the Depository Library Council recommends that the Public Printer notify government publishers of the availability of permanent paper and the benefits of using it. The Depository Library Council recommends that the Government Printing Office encourage the use of permanent paper for publications with enduring research value.

Rationale: The library community has expressed to Council a concern about the deterioration of older government documents printed on acidic paper. Council shares this concern and believes that the Joint Committee on Printing should include considerations of archival life in paper specifications in order to minimize this problem in the future.

This recommendation tacitly acknowledges the difficulty of getting government publishers to use permanent paper and urges the Public Printer, who is in the best position to encourage its use, to take the initiative in doing this. The \ paragraph appears to recommend that the JCP replace--not merely supplement--some or all of its present standards with ones incorporating provisions for permanence.

Considering how hard it is even for archivists, who are trained for this sort of thing, to sort out documents having enduring value from those that do not, the only really satisfactory answer to the problem will be to use permanent paper for everything. After all, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was written on the hack of an envelope. Here is what H. G. Jones says about the awesome task of deciding what will survive, in his book The Records of a Nation (Atheneum, New York, 1969):

The most important single responsibility in an archival program is its appraisal function through which records are evaluated for the identification of those of continuing value. Federal appraisal archivists have the most difficult responsibility of all: They exercise virtual life-and-death authority over the nation's records. It is they who decide what records are to be recommended to Congress for disposal; it is they who act as prognosticators of the future by determining what documentary evidence of the government will be preserved. This responsibility must be exercised only by mature historian-archivists, who cannot make wise decisions by a stop watch.

In time it may become unnecessary to decide what to print on permanent paper, because more and more mills are converting to alkaline processes. In the meantime, initiatives like this one of the Depository Library Council are welcome and constructive.

[Postscript: A little news item in the January Library Preservation News, issued by the British Library, says: An important and influential recent ally in the promotion of acid free paper is HMSO, the government printer and stationery office. In response to pressure from the Library Association, HMSO is circulating an article in HMSO factsheet encouraging government departments and agencies to purchase acid-free paper for their publications.]

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