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American Today

On Campus

Libraries Battle Insect and Human Foes

By Sally Acharya

Insects. Coffee. Devious map collectors. Those are just a few of the foes of librarians, who not only compile collections but also work to see that the books on shelves will still be readable in 5, 10, or even 50 years. 

An exhibit at Bender Library for National Collections Preservation Week shows some of the troubles that can befall books and lets people know what can be done—by librarians, patrons, or everyday book owners—to keep books from looking like the samples on display.

There is, for instance, a rare book from the library’s nineteenth-century math book collection that had the misfortune to be home to an insect. The bug ate its way out with mathematical precision.

Sometimes there’s not much that can be done to repair books. When a book was found mysteriously burned on the Bender Library shelves, there was no way to undo the damage.

Sometimes the damage is even intentional. When old books are found with rare maps or other images carefully removed with a razor, it’s a good bet that it was the work of an unethical collector hoping to make a buck.

But for the most part, damage is accidental. “The most important factor in book preservation is environment,” says AU archivist Susan McElrath. “If you have books at home you’re trying to preserve, number one, you don’t put it in the attic or basement, because it’s either too hot and dry or too damp.”

The exhibit, which is part of National Collections Preservation Week, details what steps can be taken when books are damaged.

“If this exhibit got students not to spill coffee on books or get them damaged by water, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But that’s not the goal of the exhibit at all. The goal is just to get people thinking about the challenges of book collections.”

The exhibit come down around May 21.