The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 20, Number 7
Dec 1996

Paperbacks vs. Hardbacks

Answers from the University of Kansas Libraries' Condition Survey

by Brian J. Baird

Preservation Librarian, University of Kansas Libraries, 502 Watson Library, Lawrence, KS 66045-2800 (913/864-3568; e-mail

A quick review of library literature will uncover many articles discussing the following two questions: Whether libraries should order the paperback version of a monograph in preference to hardback, if it is published simultaneously; and whether research libraries should bind, or stiffen, paperback monographs before placing them in their open stacks. The issue common to both of these questions is, "Will the initial cost savings compensate for higher preservation costs in the future?" (1)

Because the University of Kansas Libraries have shared in these debates, a number of questions about paperbacks were included in a recent condition survey conducted on their circulating collections. This survey was conducted in the spring of 1996 on 3,697 volumes, randomly selected, from the circulating collections of the University of Kansas Libraries. Numerous questions were answered about the condition of each volume. Because the results were contrary to what is commonly believed, I was prompted to make the findings more widely available. Paperback volumes were found to hold up surprisingly well to research library use and storage, and most of the preservation problems associated with paperbacks, such as paper pH, leaf attachment, and small gutter margins, were shown to be less severe than feared.

The survey data presented below give an accurate picture of the condition of the collections in the University of Kansas Libraries. One can also assume that many of the conditions found in the University of Kansas Libraries are similar to those found in other large research libraries.

The condition survey focused on three aspects of the paperback-versus-hardback issue: 1) paper pH, 2) textblock construction, and 3) how well, over time, paperback volumes survive patron use and stack storage.

Paper pH

In the University of Kansas Libraries, it was found that 24 percent of the collections are printed on acid-free paper. It is important to note, however, that 72 percent of all imprints from the 1990s are printed on acid-free paper, demonstrating the increasing trend of printing on acid-free paper.

The pH of monographs printed in the 1990s, and the location where they were published, was recorded. Eighty-three percent of all U.S. monographs had acid-free paper, as did 74 percent of North European imprints.(2,3) Table 1 compares the percentages of hardback and paperback monographs.

Table 1

Acid-free U.S. and North European Monographs,

1990-96, by Type of Cover

Paperback Hardback TOTAL
U.S. Imprints 81% 93% 83%
N. European Imprints 73% 83% 74%

The major reason for the lower percentage of paperback volumes with acid-free paper is the inexpensive groundwood paperbacks, of which every library must purchase a certain number because the information is available in no other form. However, the vast majority of scholarly paperback publications are printed on high-quality, acid-free paper.

Textblock Construction

It is generally agreed that textblocks with signatures sewn through the fold are superior to those that are adhesive bound. Sewn textblocks have a stronger leaf attachment, they open flatter, and they are less likely to deteriorate into clumps of loose pages. When an adhesive bound textblock fails, the result is often numerous loose pages which can easily be damaged or lost. To test these assumptions, the textblocks of all surveyed volumes were examined to learn how they were held together (leaf attachment), how the various leaf attachments withstand use, and what kinds of leaf attachments were associated with what kinds of binding.

In the University of Kansas Libraries, 47 percent of the volumes have textblocks that are sewn through the fold and 30 percent have textblocks that are adhesive bound. The condition survey found that 90 percent of the textblocks that were sewn through the fold were in good condition, (4) but an equal proportion (90 percent) of the adhesive bound textblocks were also in good condition. Since adhesive binding is a more recent technique, this should help to account for the results. However, one cannot completely discount them because additional analyses, presented later, demonstrate that adhesive bound volumes hold up well to research library use and storage.

The survey showed that in the 1990s an increasing proportion of volumes were being produced with adhesive binding as the leaf attachment method for both hardback and paperback materials (Table 2).

Table 2

Adhesive Bindings as a Percent of the Total and of Books Published 1990-96, by Type of Cover

Hard Bound Paper Bound
Adhesive Bound
(entire collection)
15% 56%
Adhesive Bound
(1990s imprints)
36% 77%

What is important is not so much the relative soundness of adhesive binding versus sewn through the fold, but rather the relative performance of textblocks in paperback and hardback bindings.

Gutter Margins

The next area of comparison between hardback and paperback volumes is the average width of gutter margins of each binding style. As Figure 1 demonstrates, hardback volumes have larger gutter margins. These margins are important for photocopying text cleanly, and to allow for future rebinding.

[Bar Chart]
Figure 1. Width of gutter margin in hardback and paperback bindings.

In this area, hardback volumes have a clear superiority. However, I do not feel this superiority would justify rejecting a paperback-preferred policy, if a library wishes to adopt it, because the survey data show that in the 1980s and 1990s, gutter margins are decreasing in both paperback and hardback volumes. There is, therefore, no assurance that buying hardback volumes will guarantee a larger inner margin in the future.

Holding up to Use

In estimating the amount of savings a library might realize by purchasing more paperback monographs, it is important to look at how well paperback materials hold up to use, compared to hardback volumes. In the University of Kansas Libraries' survey, each volume was given a rating based on the condition of its textblock, and the condition of its cover or binding.

The survey showed that only 8 percent of all paperbacks had damaged covers, and only 2 percent were damaged due to lack of support.

It was found that 87 percent of textblocks in paper covers were in good condition, and 89 percent of the textblocks in hard covers-no real difference in performance. Furthermore, the survey showed that 80 percent of the paperback bindings themselves were in good condition compared to 79 percent for hardback volumes. Initially, it was thought that part of the reason paperback bindings fared so well statistically was because hardback bindings have been around for so much longer and are, therefore, as a population, older and more damaged. However, even for volumes printed in the 1980s and 1990s, 88 percent of paperback volumes are in good condition, just slightly behind 93 percent for hardback volumes.

Articles written by John Christensen, 5 and Randy Silverman and Robert Speiser, 6 argue that paperbacks should be given additional support by applying polyester self-adhesive coverings to help extend their useful life. Christensen bases his argument on a study of heavily used paperbacks. However, the results from KU's survey7 suggest that the majority of paperbacks in a research library will not receive sufficient use to require stiffening.

It is my opinion, based on the findings of the University of Kansas Libraries' condition survey, that there is no significant preservation reason to abandon a paperback-preferred policy for scholarly volumes. Such a policy undoubtedly will increase demand on a library's binding budget, but this can be compensated for by channeling a percentage of the realized savings from such a plan into the binding budget. Furthermore, it seems clear that paperback volumes survive well in a research library's stacks and can circulate without experiencing significantly more damage than hardback volumes. Therefore, I would argue that paperback volumes do not need to be bound before they are sent to the stacks of a research library, and that they do not need binding until they begin to show signs of wear.


1. Goedeken, 1995; Strauch, 1993; Hodge, 1992; Silverman, 1992; Presley, 1990; Christensen, 1989; Presley, 1987; Turner, 1986; Dean, 1981.

2. For their condition survey, the University of Kansas Libraries defined northern Europe as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany (West Germany), Great Britain, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.

3. Butler, 1990; McCrady, 1990. Data gathered in the KU Libraries condition survey support findings reported elsewhere on the pH of paper in new monographic acquisitions.

5. Christiansen, 1989.

6. Silverman, 1992.

7. Presley, 1990. KU's results confirm those found by Presley in a survey he conducted to determine how well paperbacks stand up to patron use and stack storage in a research library.


Butler, Randall R. (1990) "Here Today. . . Gone Tomorrow." A pH investigation of Brigham Young University's 1987 library acquisitions. College and Research Libraries 51(6), 539-551.

Christensen, John O. (1989) "Extending life for popular paperbacks." Library Journal 114 (16), 65-66.

Dean, John. (1981) "The in-house processing of paperbacks and pamphlets." Serials Review 7(4), 81-85.

Goedeken, Ed, Ivan Hanthorn, Pam Rebarcak. (1995) "To buy or not to buy: The cost implications of purchasing paperbacks." Against the Grain 7(3), 1, 7, 16.

Hodge, Stanley P. (1992) "The question of paperbacks for academic libraries: Selection, treatment options, and durability." In Thomas Kirk, ed. Academic Libraries: Achieving Excellence in Higher Education. ALA, Chicago, 248-56.

McCrady, Ellen. (1990) "Alkaline paper forecast." Alkaline Paper Advocate 3(1), 9.

Presley, Roger L. and Christina Landram. (1987) "The life expectancy of paperback books in academic libraries." Technical Services Quarterly 4(spring), 21-31.

Presley, Roger L. and Christina Landram. (1990) "The life expectancy of paperback books in academic libraries: A follow-up study. Technical Services Quarterly 7(4), 1-10.

Silverman, Randy and Robert Speiser. (1992) "Buying publishers' trade paperbacks versus hardbacks: A preventive conservation strategy for research libraries." Advances in Librarianship 16, 127-51.

Strauch, Katina and Heather Miller. (1993) "Cloth over paper or paper over cloth-up to you." Against the Grain 5(3), 9-12, 71.

Turner, John. (1993) "Binding arbitration: A comparison of the durability of various hardback and paperback bindings." Library Association Record 88 (May), 233-35.

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