Aliens, robots, spaceships: Pulp sci-fi goes to Harvard
The world’s first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories, was born in 1926, a year before Frederick I. Ordway III ’49. The Ordway family maid one day left a copy of Amazing Stories on a dining room chair when Ordway was a sprat; he spotted it, devoured it, and straightaway was hooked. He joined the American Rocket Society at age 11 and went on to become an actual rocket scientist, working for Wernher von Braun at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and later at NASA. He has written, coauthored, or edited more than 30 popular books about rocketry and space travel. As a youngster, Ordway began in earnest to collect pulp-magazine science fiction. As a grownup collector, he shifted from fiction to astronomy and from magazines to rare books. “I moved beyond them,” he told Harvard College Library staffer Jennifer Tomase, “but I always loved the pulps.”
He gave his collection of about 900 sci-fi pulps to the library in 2002. They are a rich cache of popular culture that will be of unpredictable but undoubted value to researchers, and they pose bracing preservation problems. They are called “pulps” because their inside pages are rough, wood-pulp paper, unlike the “glossies” or the “slicks,” and ordinarily they are not long for this world.
As acid breaks down the molecular structure of paper, it darkens and weakens. Cheap wood-pulp paper is very acid to begin with, and age makes it even more so. Malloy-Rabinowitz pre servation librarian Jan Merrill-Oldham explains that the Ordway pulps have undergone the so-called Bookkeeper mass deacidification process. Technicians dip small batches of decaying pulp sci-fi into a bath of magnesium oxide, which is alkaline. The potion circulates for two hours and coats the paper evenly. It is waterless, and so the paper fibers don’t swell. After its bath, the paper is nicely alkaline, with a pH between 8.0 and 9.5 (7.0 is neutral). In the following weeks, the magnesium oxide particles on the paper combine with moisture from the air to form an alkaline magnesium-hydroxide buffer that will absorb and neutralize acids in the paper for the remainder of the pulps’ days. Tests indicate that the treatment extends paper life by three to five times, a stay of execution for Captain Future.
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