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When the Paper Fails the Test

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In Fall 1979, the School of Social Work at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, released their Introductory issue of Human Services in the Rural Environment. It was actually a continuation of a serial first produced at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, Center for Public Service, which produced three volumes. This was denoted as Volume 1, Number 1 and assembled by Executive Editor Joanne Jankovic and Senior Editorial Assistant Sally Johnson. The production was overseen by a three-person editorial board, which included Jankovic, an Assistant Professor. Further, it was guided by the National Advisory Committee with seven representatives from across the country. The Publication policy promised bimonthly release, with subscriptions at $10 for individuals and $20 for libraries or institutions.


Title Page: Human Services in the Rutal Environment. Photo credit: Keith F. Shovlin.
Title Page: Human Services in the Rural Environment. Photo credit: K.F. Shovlin.


This issue came to the Library that Fall and was stamped received by the Congressional Research Service on October 29, 1979. From there it was transferred to the Serials Division where all newspapers, magazines, journals, and periodicals were held. Today that Division is called the Serial & Government Publication Division and serves nearly 70,000 periodical titles, 17,000 comic book titles, and over a million government publications. This particular item was placed in the stacks where it would later be joined by further issues, but remained there until 2021. At that time, a serials contractor working for LAC Group retrieved the item, placed it on lot 21-S151 with other single pamphlet serials, completed the binding process and sent it to the HF Group Commercial Bindery.

Cover: Human Services in the Rural Environment. Photo credit: Keith F. Shovlin.
Cover: Human Services in the Rural Environment bound for long term storage. Photo credit: K. F. Shovlin.

Once it returned from the Bindery, the Processing and Preparation staff conducted the final quality review. As the serial was being assessed, the technician noted the matte finish of the pages and used a pH test pen to test the item. The chemicals within the pen can distinguish between alkaline levels showing yellow for acidic or purple for neutral. The pages inside this standard academic journal are typed on typewriter. The pressed metal keys leaving that distinctive font that is nearly vanished from contemporary design. The yellowed pages however are a time-bomb slowly leading to its destruction; the paper is acidic.

Yellow means acidic
The pH pen makes a yellow mark showing the acidic level of the paper. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin


Acidic paper is a danger to itself as that acidity is causing it to decompose at a significantly faster rate than a neutral paper. Since that type was first pressed to paper, the world has become aware of acidic paper, with the adoption of the ANSI/NISO Standard Z39.48-1984 – Permanence of Paper for Publications and Documents in Libraries in 1984. This has led to several breakthroughs in ways to neutralize or preserve these aging relics. Now into the third decade of the 21st century, acidic paper is less common in new publications, fortunately, and there are numerous ways for libraries and individuals to combat acidic paper and preserve the knowledge contained therein.

Copy It

Acid-free paper is available from any office supply store, big box store, or online. Any photo copier can reproduce the text onto new paper that has a better chance to stand the test of time. When we make preservation copies at the Library, we have some tighter standards for the papers and copying methods, of course, but acid-free papers and reliable copiers are very widespread now.

Digitize It

For personal records or items within the public domain, digitizing is a good, low-cost option to preserve these items, a strategy we call “preservation reformatting.” Scan or photograph each page and make a plan to store those digital files safely. You might want to take a look at The Signal blog to learn more about digital preservation. For items outside the public domain, an item can be digitized but it’s recommended to have the permission of the copyright holder. Many books and journals today are being released “born digital” so they are already converted to electronic storage. Even with eBooks and eJournals, respect the copyright holder. The people that have put in their time and effort to complete that publication have a right to be paid for their work.

Cold Storage

If you have the ability to store your items in a climate-controlled facility, items stored in cool temperatures have a longer shelf life even if printed on acidic paper. This is the most common strategy for the Library of Congress. Our largest preservation facilities, at Fort Meade, create an environment that reduces paper decay by a factor of 4x or more and you can read more about this facility and its preservation functions in our posts on offsite storage.


Chemical treatments have been used by the Library of Congress and other large libraries for the past 30 years. This can involve single-items being treated in conservation, or mass-scale treatments of many items. The Library used this approach extensively to treat collections in the stacks, prior to developing its cold storage strategies in tandem with its high-density offsite storage program.

Good news on the horizon

As technology advances and new materials are discovered, more options will come about to preserve these items. Acidic paper production is also less common in the 21st century thanks to a combination of advocacy from conservation movements in both libraries and the environment, and manufacturers changing their pulp-making to acid-free production. Looking at Human Services in the Rural Environment, that issue from 1979 may be acidic, but Volume 15, Number 3 from Winter 1992 was on that same lot, 21-S151, and passed the pH test, showing the bright purple mark of a neutral product.

A later edition of the serial is checked and is neutral as noted by the purple mark. Photo credit: K.F. Shovlin.

The Preservation Directorate is continuing to expand our techniques and knowledge in order to preserve the millions of items in our collections for centuries to come. For more about preserving your personal libraries and documents, visit the Preservation Directorate. If you have questions about copyright and the rights of reproduction, visit the Copyright Office.

An earlier version of this blog contained outdated information on the Preservation Directorate’s deacidification program.

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