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The printed book is facing its share of challenges in the digital age. But one of the big­gest problems facing the future of the book has gone relatively unnoticed by book lovers—the quality of paper being used in many first edition hardcovers is declining, saddling consumers with inferior products and presenting libraries with a looming preservation crisis. "We are at a critical crossroads in publishing," says Melissa Klug, a marketing director at Glatfelter, a Pennsylvania-based permanent paper supplier. "As the attention of the publishing world turns to e-books, a trend toward lesser quality print versions of books could become a landslide."

In fact, that landslide may have begun. Klug notes that over half the books on the current New York Times bestseller list are printed on inferior paper. But Klug and Glatfelter are part of an awareness effort, called Permanence Matters, that seeks to reverse this trend. Launched in 2010, Permanence Matters is bringing together librarians, consumers, and other stakeholders in the book business to call attention to the growing use of inferior paper in books. They've exhibited at BEA, launched a Web site and blog, and have been active in social media, garnering nearly 23,000 "likes" on the Permanence Matters Facebook page. And on May 10 of this year, Glatfelter and the Johns Hopkins University libraries held an all-day symposium that brought together more than 100 librarians and conservationists to discuss professional preservation issues, something they plan to do again in 2012.

Maybe paper quality isn't the sexiest issue facing the publishing world today, with the constant deluge of cool new devices, apps, and services blowing minds, changing reader habits, and disrupting old business models. But as publishers concentrate on the frontier of e-books, Klug says, they mustn't ignore the quality of physical books.

Not Again

So, what's the problem? Over the past decade, Klug explains, there has been a spike in usage by book publishers of what's called "groundwood" paper instead of "freesheet," or "permanent," paper. Groundwood paper is any paper in which the pulp is made by a mechanical grinding process, as opposed to the chemical process used to make higher quality "permanent" paper. In the mechanical grinding process, some nasty components remain in the pulp, such as lignin, for example, the component that causes paper to yellow and grow brittle. The mechanical grinding process also yields shorter fibers, which means the paper tears easily. (Recycled paper, used in some mass market titles, is also weaker, and more easily degraded.) Historically, groundwood paper has been relegated to newspapers and mass market paperbacks—products that consumers don't reasonably expect to last very long. But today, a growing number of publishers are using groundwood paper in their hardcover first editions—and it's beginning to show.

Librarians have seen the effect of past paper crises, such as the "acidic" paper era of the early 20th century, and are not eager to grapple with a new one. "The rise of acidic papers in the history of printing coincided with the rise of graduate education and the rise of the many academic research disciplines that now exist today," says Sonja Jordan-Mowery, a conservation and preservation expert at Johns Hopkins University. "Because of the proliferation of publishing during this period, millions of books are now deteriorating," she says, including many important primary sources from one of history's most intellectually fertile, creative eras. Because the paper of this era was uniformly acidic, Mowery says, buying secondary copies printed on nonacidic paper was not an option. "More books are deteriorating now than can be saved," she adds, "and the more industrialized a nation, the more absolute the demise."

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