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Rescuing the Past

Preservation is a growing problem faced by research libraries all over the world. Most books and documents dating from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century were printed or written on paper that has become highly acidic, as a result of the interaction, over time, of oxygen with impurities in the paper itself. As a result, many old documents and books are brittle and in danger of disintegration.

YIVO's collections have faced some additional and unusual hardships. The core of YIVO's library of 360,000 volumes and 22,000,000-item archives consists of materials which the Nazis pilfered during World War II. Though the Nazis destroyed much of YIVO's holdings, they also appropriated thousands of books and documents for a proposed "Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question." Discovered near Frankfurt am Main after the war, these materials were restored by the U.S. Army to YIVO's new headquarters in New York in 1947. In a sense, these books and papers are also survivors of the Holocaust. (For more information about YIVO's history, click here.)

In a few cases, YIVO's copy of a book is the only one known to exist. Without the YIVO Library and Archives, it would be difficult for a scholar to complete his or her investigations in the fields of East European Jewish life, the Holocaust, and American Jewish history.

What Can be Done?

Most library and museum preservation programs employ some or all of the following strategies to conserve and restore old books and documents:

  • Reformatting‚ Books and documents are microfilmed, xeroxed, or digitized in order to allow researchers access to their contents while limiting handling of the original item.
  • Rehousing‚ Items are removed from acidic bindings, folders, or boxes, and repackaged in acid-free covers and containers.
  • Climate-controlled storage‚ Collections are removed from humid and overheated rooms or buildings and placed in climate-controlled environments, where optimum temperature and humidity levels can be ensured.
  • Encapsulation‚ Particularly fragile or oversized items (such as posters) are encapsulated in clear mylar to protect them from the environment and to enable them to be handled.
  • Deacidification‚ A chemical process is used to deacidify paper. (This is a time- consuming and costly process and is only undertaken for particularly rare and endangered items.)