At Tulane University, 1.5 million books and manuscripts were drenched when Hurricane Katrina swept through Louisiana in 2005. In 2018, the University of California, Los Angeles was in talks to receive a donor’s collection when it was destroyed in the Woolsey fire. And the following year, the Getty fire sent up thick, black plumes of smoke that threatened to filter into U.C.L.A.’s libraries and damage the fragile materials housed inside.
“We were lucky” that day, recalled Chela Metzger, the school’s head of preservation and conservation. Acidic smoke and greasy soot are grave concerns for any conservator, but in this case, the winds held them at bay.
But luck is not a safeguard against the growing threat posed by extreme weather events such as wildfires and floods to book collections, even collections housed in professional facilities. As those events have become more common as a result of climate change, preservationists across the United States know they must adapt their practices to keep books and archives safe. But the solutions can raise their own set of sustainability issues.
Many experts feel they are in a race against time. A 2018 study published in the Climate Risk Management journal assessed 1,232 archival repositories in the United States and found that nearly 99 percent were “likely to be affected by at least one climate risk factor.”
Both immediate and long-term strategies are needed to keep books secure in changing environments, experts say, but some threats are more insidious than wildfires or hurricanes.
Shifts in temperature and humidity from climate change can have large consequences. Archivists and conservators in Cincinnati, for example, are worried about big temperature swings in a single day. Humidity is on the rise in Southern California, where the climate is historically dry; most preservation systems in the area aren’t designed to manage precipitation.
“The higher the humidity, the higher the temperature, the quicker they will break down their organic materials,” said Holly Prochaska, the interim head of the Archives and Rare Books Library at the University of Cincinnati. “Leather will wet rot. Collagen fibers in vellum will tighten and shrink.”
Institutions like U.C.L.A. are developing ways to combat humidity to work in tandem with their climate-controlled stacks and collections rooms. Now, because of climate change, Metzger thinks twice before loaning out materials, which can keep history and knowledge under lock and key.
“Books gain meaning by use — use is exhibit, use is research — and there’s a beauty in use,” Metzger said. “If we just isolate things and keep them in these little, perfectly-controlled environments with guards around them, what is their meaning anymore?”
One solution is digitization — scanning pages and storing them online. The process is not only an answer to climate change; it also allows for documents to be easily accessible and shared, broadening a collection’s reach. Adding documents to a server or the cloud, though, presents its own set of obstacles, both practical and environmental.
Digitization can be catalyzed by times of great distress: when war threatens the destruction of buildings that house cultural materials, for example, or when a climate becomes too harsh. What may seem easy — scanning and uploading — relies on vast amounts of servers on a large scale, and the energy used adds to overall emissions. According to a 2019 study published in The American Archivist, the process “has considerable negative environmental impacts, which in turn threaten the very organizations tasked with preserving digital content.”
Preservationists are left with a choice of what holds enough value to digitize.
Once uploaded onto a server, cataloging is not seamless. Files can be mislabeled and lost in the ether, Metzger said, and the digital files still require maintenance and oversight.
Researchers are studying ways to maintain physical books for longer and sustainably. The Image Permanence Institute, a research center based at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has analyzed more than 1.9 billion environmental data points from institutions around the world to find the best practices for keeping collections safe. The National Endowment for the Humanities recently announced a grant to aid institutions seeking to organize climate plans and reduce their environmental impact.
The threat from climate change is an ongoing problem, and there is no perfect solution as collections by design amass more and more materials.
“The needs of the book are actually not that complicated,” Metzger said. “The world around it has become more complicated.”