For years, we have been told there is a crisis in our libraries, that books and newspapers will soon be turning to dust, that we should microfilm virtually everything as soon as possible, while discarding many of the originals. Have we been told the truth?An emphatic no is the conclusion reached by best-selling novelist and acclaimed essayist Nicholson Baker in his certain to be controversial new book, Double Fold. Baker has done extensive research, interviewing many prominent librarians, as well as the buyers and sellers of unique library holdings. He admits that his study is not an impartial piece of reporting. While he does not misrepresent the views of others, we are always aware of his own position. For example, he asserts that librarians have lied shamelessly about the extent of paper's fragility, and they continue to lie about it. For over fifty years they have disparaged paper's residual strength, while remaining 'blind as lovers' to the failings and infirmities of film. He says the main reason microfilm (and its rectangular, lower-resolution cousin, microfiche) has always fascinated library administrators is, of course, that it gives them a way to clear the shelves. Baker argues that key decisions on this subject made at the Library of Congress strongly influenced decision-makers at other libraries. In his words, such is the prestige of our biggest library that whatever its in-house theoreticians come to believe, libraries will soon believe as well. Baker documents how well-intentioned librarians and their boards worked with such government agencies as NASA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the microfilm industry to perpetuate the destroy to preserve approach. He explains in detail how seriously flawed tests failed to slow down the almost unanimous acceptance of the approach that led to the destruction of countless original books and newspapers. One such test, widely used, provides the title for his book. It is a simple experiment how kindergartners are taught to divide a piece of paper without scissors that determines the brittleness of books. Baker says it is often an instrument of deception, almost always of self-deception which creates a uniform class of condemnable objects 'brittle material' . . . whose population can be adjusted up or down to suit rhetorical needs simply by altering the number of repetitions demanded in the procedure. The author is careful to point out that not all librarians and libraries have been swept up in the movement toward microfilm and the discarding of originals. In particular, he notes, the only major research library in the country that still has no full-time or part-time preservation administrator is the Boston Public Library. They are also the only large library in the country that has kept all of its post-1870 bound newspaper collection. And he applauds the efforts of G. Thomas Tanselle, a Melville scholar, who has often recommended that we store somewhere all the casualties books, journals, or newspapers; bound, disbound, or never bound in the first place of mass microfilming or preservation photocopying. Baker is so passionately committed to preserving the original runs of significant newspapers that he established the American Newspaper Repository to buy some of them for public use. He writes, We're at a bizarre moment in history, when you can have the real thing for considerably less than it would cost to buy a set of crummy black-and-white snapshots of it which you can't read without the help of a machine. The author's remarkable skill with language, linked with his obvious concern for the many aspects of his subject, enables him to share his curiosity and insight in a compelling way. Double Fold should appeal to anyone interested in our shared cultural heritage. It might also provoke some well-informed person who disagrees with Baker to write a book in response.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.