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Brittle books and fading film get a lifesaver this month as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awards $3 million in grants for preservation projects. This year, a total of $22.6 million will go toward preservation projects across the United States, almost double the amount spent in 1989, thanks to the increasing generosity of Congress, which allocates money to both NEH and to the more controversial National Endowment for the Arts.

Theological works, newspapers, films, and Mexican historical documents are among 14 projects to receive funds.

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Most NEH preservation grants go toward microfilming written works that, because of acid-based paper and age, are turning to dust on bookshelves.

But the most recent round of NEH awards, announced in December 1990, went for the first time to preserve actual artifacts - textiles, Eskimo tools, pottery shards, and 18th-century furniture. "Most of the money spent goes to preserve the knowledge contained in the books," says NEH spokesman John McGrath. "But these items of material culture contain clues about the way people and past civilizations lived."

Research on how best to preserve written and cultural artifacts is also critical. At the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, N.Y., director John Reilly says that without the recent $230,000 NEH grant, and matching private funds, his lab couldn't continue work on techniques to preserve old film - from Hollywood classics to family treasures.

"The life span of an average film could be as short as 20 years," Mr. Reilly notes. Proper storage in cool, dry areas, could lengthen that to more than a century.

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