The Ostensible Purpose Of A Library Is To Preserve The Printed Word But For Fifty Years Our Country S Libraries Including The Library Of Congress Have Been Doing Just The Opposite, Destroying Hundreds Of Thousands Of Historic Newspapers And Replacing Them With Microfilm Copies That Are Difficult To Read, Lack All The Color And Quality Of The original Paper And Illustrations, And Deteriorate With AgeWith Meticulous Detective Work And Baker S Well Known Explanatory Power, Double Fold Reveals A Secret History Of Microfilm Lobbyists, Former CIA Agents, And Warehouses Where Priceless Archives Are Destroyed With A Machine Called A Guillotine Baker Argues Passionately For Preservation, Even Cashing In His Own Retirement Account To Save One Important Archive All Twenty Tons Of It Written The Brilliant Narrative Style That Nicholson Baker Fans Have Come To Expect, Double Fold Is A Persuasive And Often Devastating Book That May Turn Out To Be The Jungle Of The American Library System I decided to be honest with myself I read several chapters of this book in school I intended to go back and read the whole thing, because there is some very interesting ideas in the book However, I realized it s just going to make me MAD Now, I am all for reading things that challenge your assumptions, I am But not this topic Not at this point of my life So If I ever decide at a later time to read it I ll start again.
I should have written a review of this, and may have some comments written in an old paper journal In the meanwhile, Susie s review will give you an idea of why this book is still relevant, even if that battle was pretty much lost.
Baker s American Newspaper Repository survives, as a part of the Duke University Libraries shouldn t be but am surprised at the venom of some of the library pros against Baker s efforts book Doubling down on a bad call, I guess Anyone old enough to remember browsing old mags newspapers in the library basement will appreciate the value of actual paper historic documents.
The library has gone astray partly because we trusted the librarians so completely Nicholson Baker has written a heavily researched retelling of when the first digitization microfilming movement hit the major libraries in the United States, leading many to dump the only originals of major newspapers, journals, and books He zeroes in on the Library of Congress and other government agencies CIA, NASA, and the NEH who have had major roles to play in the destruction of print While I found some of his reasoning to exclude fair arguments from other viewpoints, and one chapter to miss important details completely the JSTOR project includes several libraries that act as repositories for the print, I should know, I was the graduate assistant in cataloging who added the dusty volumes to the collection , I think overall it serves as a cautionary tale to libraries and archives Shouldn t somebody keep the original Can we ever be completely certain that the digital copy has enough longevity, looking back and learning from what was lost by the original microfilming process I think the biggest mistake Baker has made, or really any scholar might be making, is in assuming that libraries are as a whole somehow charged with retaining and preserving the world s knowledge Like any other industry out there, libraries change with the times I don t think this noble mission actually exists in the minds of most library administrators instead we work to serve the needs of our patrons Some of our decisions to promote access to materials has led to the destruction of the original, although even Baker admits this has become less of a trend starting in the 90s It does beg the question the massive digitization projects being sponsored by Google at several universities these days what is happening to those originals Leave the books alone, I say, leave them alone, leave them alone.
The elegance and irreverence Nicholson Baker usually brings to his fiction work especially the sublime vignette The Mezzanine is completely absent in Double Fold , Baker s screed about the replacement of library books with microfiche and other digital storage While the author s quest to rally for the preservation of rare and old tomes seems noble enough, his methods are in line with conservative news reporting Whenever he interviews someone who shares his viewpoints, they are described in a positive and pleasant light when he interviews someone who disagrees with him, they are often presented unflatteringly, as if his fellow saints in the book preservation business were the warriors of good sense and all opposed are just Philistines and tight mouthed bureaucrats What s saddest of all about Double Fold the name comes from a test where aging paper is creased back and forth until it breaks off is that Baker often seems guided solely by passion and nostalgia, and not by objective argument He decries microfiche for its inability to preserve text and images any reliably than the books he s trying to save, brushing under the rug the variety of permanent data storage methods available ample at the time of the book s publishing a decade ago, and even so now The end of the book finds Baker blowing a substantial portion of his savings on several thousand library books that would otherwise be destroyed while his home book humidor may be suitable to their preservation than in some basement stacks, it seemed a quixotic gesture, the purchase of a hoarder than a historian.
Reporting of this nature works best when the author keeps his own emotions in check and lets the facts tell the story as it turns out in Double Fold , Baker is an old book romantic in search only of like minded patrons and no one else, regardless of whether there s really any sense in the venture.
A little than a year ago, I was chatting with my boss about a New Yorker article that I d read many years before the piece concerned card catalogue information I believe it was at the San Francisco Library being input into a computer database and discarded, losing all of the notes that scholars and others had written in the margins of the cards over decades He knew exactly what I was talking about, went to his bookcase, and pulled down his copy of this book, which he loaned me on the spot.
Over the course of the past year, I read this book for a few minutes whenever I had time over my lunchtime Of course, I lost a lot of threads and forgot who was who in the ever expanding cast of real life characters, but one horrible truth became abundantly clear our libraries, including our own Library of Congress, that we have expected to be our repositories of books, newspapers, magazines, and other printed media have let us down and heads of these organizations have methodically allowed these media to be scanned often poorly for microfilm and then destroyed Why Because storage space is limited and the books, etc.
, were going to break down and be useless anyway.
Nicholson Baker painstakingly outlines his case for these arguments being false and the reasons why the arguments are being made in the first place and how long this has been going on.
Fortunately, he also saved decades worth of copies of such newspapers as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribuune, and my heart was glad to see that he also rescued copies of the Saturday Review, when he found out that the British Library of all places was going to discard them All true he formed the American Newspaper Repository, a non profit, which he continues to run While depressing and horrifying, this book was enlightening and ultimately made me happier than ever that Nicholson Baker is out there, doing than writing elegant novels and non fiction pieces Thank you, Mr Baker the editor in me and my own writing style made me want to re write parts of this book, but I m so grateful that it was written.
Nicholson Baker s Double Fold Libraries and the Assault on Paper is a fiery polemic dedicated to the task of protecting what he sees as one of our nation s most important resources our libraries massive stockpile of seldom used older books and newspapers As Baker explains, the extent of our paper reserves of old newspapers and rarely read old books is dwindling, often being chopped up and preserved that is, their content, rather than their form, is preserved in either microform or a digital format Baker s position is not a nuanced one we need to save everything To do this, libraries need to purchase warehouses, warehouses basically without end, so that not a Sun Times or musty tome is thrown aside The very first sentence in the summary on the back cover reads The ostensible purpose of a library is to preserve the printed word which shows Baker may have a basic confusion between the definition of a library and the definition of a repository, but never mind the point is, Baker says, a library neglects its duties when it throws away disused materials.
Baker s writing style is eloquent and engaging however, the entire book is dominated by a one sided and hostile tone, along with his distinctly uncharitable characterization of his opponents.
I think the basic philosophical difficulty in Baker s position can be found in the chapter with the title A Swifter Conflagration Here, Baker fully reveals his philosophical position that all pieces of written media are valuable as individual objects It is not merely enough that a rarely used book s contents are preserved somewhere merely disposing of a particular object is itself always a dereliction of duty.
Baker says The truth is that all books are physical artifacts, without exception, just as all books are bowls of ideas i.
e textual content They are things and utterances both And libraries, Baker s ally believes, since they own, whether they like it or not, collections of physical artifacts, must aspire to the conditions of museums All their books are treasures, in a sense This is a rather overstated thesis Some books and newspapers are valuable essentially for their own sake, rare books such as the Gutenberg Bibles, for example However, it doesn t follow that every library must preserve every non duplicate book or newspaper on its shelves, some of which, such as pulp novels, are almost certainly disposable once their shelf life is over What Baker calls for is for libraries to devote large portions of their physical holdings to items that, not virtually, but literally, do not circulate.
There are times in Double Fold when Baker seems to be using the sheer confidence of his vituperation to slip some questionable logic past the reader At one point Baker complains that the Library of Congress threw out ten million dollars worth of public property However, his criterion for this figure is replacement value This is a somewhat meaningless, almost sneaky figure A lot of otherwise worthless things might be rather pricey to replace Being difficult to replace does not make something valuable in the first place.
This is not say there are not some worthwhile themes in Double Fold Baker s complaints about microform are well taken, his call for a national repository even so Baker also provides the reader with an entertaining and occasionally fascinating history of book preservation, including the disastrous use of large, book filled, black goo spurting tanks of explosive gas, formerly owned by NASA Another memorable anecdote involves the creation of paper from the wrappings of Egyptians mummies.
The fact that Baker s book is quite biased and sometimes infuriating should not dissuade an intelligent reader from giving it a shot however, some practical knowledge of libraries and a questioning attitude are prescribed.
In his first and as far as I know his best book The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker displays a charming affection for the antique, the mechanical, the ingenious But in Double Fold this charming affection is stripped away, revealing an impractical Ludditism Baker argues that libraries shouldn t throw away card catalogs once they ve been replaced with online databases, and instead they should preserve these hulking and impractical monstrosities for the subtle data they contain The marginalia on the cards, their patina that reveals the pattern of finger handlings on their edges.
Bullshit Card catalogs are obsolete, a bain of my childhood and the childhoods of millions, and they are rightly banished as a bad substitute for computers, a stopgap waiting for the invention of electronics.
Baker acknowledges that librarians were beside themselves with joy when card catalogs were discarded He describes bacchanal parties in which librarians burned the catalogs Apparently, the professionals who dealt with them wanted nothing than to obliterate them for good But Nicholson Baker knows better than librarians He alone sees the true value of card catalogs, and libraries worldwide should take his advice and preserve them.
Such an argument, Baker s clarion call for inefficiency, a defense of deadweight, is just ossified curmudgeonery founded on nostalgia Baker confirms the worst of our fears about his love of the worn and tactile, preferring such old fashioned contraptions over new technology no matter what the cost, and no matter how firm the consensus among professionals far experienced than he.
To see him so wrong headed on such a trivial matter raises grave doubts about Human Smoke, his latest book, where he takes on the greatest question in history Was war a justifiable response to the Nazis Again, in Human Smoke, Baker takes the contrarian position, arguing that pacifism was the righteous path, even in 1939 I d like to believe him I m a pacifist myself But if Double Fold is an example of Baker s reasoning, I don t have much faith in him when it comes to the great questions.