The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 2
Aug 2001


Double Cross: Nicholson Baker's Assault on Libraries

by Ellen McCrady

Almost everyone who is involved with books, preservation or libraries has had something to say about Nicholson Bakers' book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, published late last spring.

The book's theme and purpose is revealed by its title. It reminds me of a tabloid revelation of some public figure's hidden past. But because it has some intellectual content, it is more like one of those books "proving" that an accepted authority (e.g., Charles Darwin or Margaret Mead) made up their data. The common theme of these exposés is: Find a reputation and destroy it.

An accomplished writer like Nicholson Baker can do this easily, especially since his cause means a lot to him, and he is able to accumulate enough facts and details to impress the reader. However, what he wrote is not honest journalism, because its purpose is not to seek or tell the truth, but to persuade.

In my opinion, it is pointless to review this book as if it were a straightforward discussion of reality, or a heartfelt argument for a new approach to library preservation policies. It must be placed in the category that includes other such books, and judged by similar criteria, whatever they might be.

I started to read the draft he sent me, but lost interest when I saw the pattern. My pencilled corrections and comments are still scribbled in the margins of the part I read.

However, I did read or skim a lot of the reviews, letters to the editor, and published commentary by other people. Some of them appear to be futile protestations or rebuttals of Baker's statements. Others, obviously written for the general public, take Baker seriously; Michael Dirda's review for the Washington Post appears not to take sides, introduces a few sound facts, and is not shy about making plain or exaggerated statements about all parties concerned. He calls Double Fold "an outraged and polemical history of microfilming."

Darnton's Review in The NY Review of Books

Robert Darnton's review for the April 26 New York Review of Books was captioned "The Great Book Massacre." In the first half of his review he uncritically summarizes Baker's main "propositions," giving the impression that he has swallowed Baker's story whole. Then he becomes critical, emphasizing Baker's distorting of evidence, use of unfair rhetorical devices such as quoting out of context and making inflammatory remarks.

Darnton does at least say that "libraries no longer guillotine books in order to microfilm them, and they no longer throw away the originals. Most of Baker's horror stories date from an era that has passed.... He lavishes most of his indignation on practices that have been abandoned—with one notable exception."

That exception was the British Library's auctioning off of the greatest collection of American daily newspapers in the world, despite all of Baker's pleas. Baker bought what he could when it came up for repulping or auction, using borrowed money, all his savings and solicited contributions—a noble effort, described in his story in the New Yorker Magazine last year.

Baker's story ignited the suppressed indignation of preservation-minded librarians who had opposed the once common American practice of destroying books by guillotining, microfilming and pulping them, sometimes without even finding out whether they were brittle or not. (This had to do with the way the microfilming projects were funded, after the policy of filming collections instead of volumes was put into place.) We finally had our say in a two-part article in the Abbey Newsletter, "'Preserving' Newspapers."

Baker's story, according to Darnton, was incorporated into the book Double Fold, about which he says, "The text does not follow a chronological order or any clear organizational pattern at all. Instead, it consists of vignettes, brief, brilliant essays strung together in a way that is intended to stun the reader and stoke the indignation as one bizarre episode follows another."

David Gates' Review in the NY Times

Gates is a real fan of Baker, quoting and applauding him through the first half of his review ("Paper Chase"), without saying anything factually descriptive or critical about the book. He apparently loved it, partly because it got him "hopping mad."

The second half is full of his own confirmation of Baker's statements, quotations from the parts of the book that impressed him, and predictions of what the book will do to the "biblio-techies" and "microfilm mandarins." There is little intellectual content to this review.

The Christian Science Monitor Review

Merle Rubin did a brief review of Double Fold in the Monitor on April 5. He naively accepts all of Baker's crazy statements, without making the effort to appraise their truth or value. For instance, he recommends using the "delicate art of book conservation—the painstaking repair of fragile tomes" instead of microfilming.

U.S. News & World Report

In the "Science & Ideas - Libraries" section of U.S. News & World Report for April 23, Jay Tolson's review takes up one page, counting the picture of bound newspapers at the Library of Congress. It is titled "Is the Library a Good Place for Books? An Author Says Too Much is Thrown Away."

Tolson's review is well-written and sensible. First he summarizes the book in a kind of skeptical manner ("Verner Clapp, head of the Council on Library Resources, serves as a typical villain in the plot.") Then he says that many library professionals object to Baker's overstatement and distortion, and reports what he heard when he interviewed Patricia Battin, Diane Kresh, Chandru Shahani, Mark Sweeney and G. Thomas Tanselle. Only Tanselle agreed with Baker that everything should be saved. The others told the reviewer either that Baker was beating a dead horse, because the practices he objected to were largely obsolete; or that he was giving counsels of perfection (how can every original source be saved when the Library of Congress receives 1,000 newspapers a day?).

The Library Community Responds

The best single description of librarians' reactions to Baker's book may be Adam Pertman's "Which Books do we Save—And Which do we Destroy?" which ran in the July 1 Boston Globe. The Globe says that you can obtain a copy of any article by writing to the Globe's library (PO Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378) or accessing the archives section of its web site, http://www.boston.com/. You may also be able to find it in the PADG archives: padg@ala.org. (padg=Preservation Administrators' Discussion Group.)

Pertman sees something paradoxical in the persistent attacks, vituperative language and intense sentiments that focus not on a potentially explosive political scandal or a vast conspiracy, but on whether librarians are doing enough to preserve old books and newspapers, of all things. Public interest in this topic has gone from zero to record-breaking levels, he says, because of Baker's charge that librarians, "in their zeal to save space by discarding decaying books and relegating most old newspapers to microfilm, they have systematically deprived future generations of precious, irreplaceable resources."

Pertman says that audiences react with a combination of interest, repulsion and curiosity when Baker is invited to speak, as he did at Simmons College and the Annual ALA Meeting. Duane Webster, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, believes it's important that people listen to Baker because he has focussed public attention on the problem of ensuring long-term access to our cultural heritage; but he warns that Baker's diatribe could lead to cuts in library funding, and may mislead readers by ignoring the technological and functional improvements in library practice.

Managers and decision-makers in libraries have been more critical of Baker than the library rank-and-file, because he doesn't appreciate the pressures on libraries, both large and small. But most people agree that he is wrong in saying that paper doesn't deteriorate nearly as quickly as most archivists claim.

Richard Cox, a professor of archival studies at the University of Pittsburgh, debated Baker at Simmons College, and has even written a book challenging nearly aspect of Baker's book. Still, he says, Baker's book is prompting librarians "to think more openly and more proactively about the selections business," and is stimulating public discussion about it. He is not a vigorous opponent or an aggressive debater, but seems to want to give Baker the benefit of every possible doubt.

Professional Groups Respond

In May, the Council of the Society of American Archivists agreed with Richard Cox's overview and especially endorsed the following points:

Baker's conclusions are based on a flawed analysis. The fundamental weakness of Baker's argument is his belief, more implicit than explicit, that everything can and must be saved in its original state. Archivists know that our responsibility to society and our employing institutions is to be selective about what is saved.

To keep both the originals and copies, as Baker suggests, is not possible due to the competing priorities and limited resources facing every library and archives.

Last March, there was a conference at the University of London, "Do We Want to Keep our Newspapers?" The Council on Library and Information Resources sponsored a talk by Karin Wittenborg, librarian at the University of Virginia, who described the constraints on a library's ability to collect original newspapers.

She went on to describe the International Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections, convened by CLIR and charged with outlining the major issues relating to artifacts and making recommendations. "Perhaps its most important role," she says, "is to promote discussion among scholars, librarians, funding agencies, and others on what we should be preserving in artifactual form and how we can find the resources to do it.... It is worth noting that while the preservation of newspapers is an important issue, it is one that pales in comparison to the production volume of films and broadcast media—television and radio—and the higher costs to preserve those media." She describes the dilemmas and obstacles faced by groups discussing ways to preserve artifactual materials of all kinds, including newspapers, in libraries. (Wittenborg's talk is at http://www.arl.org/preserv/baker.html.)

Shirley K. Baker, President of the Association of Research Libraries, sent a letter to the editor of the New York Review April 25, commenting on both Baker's book and Darnton's review in the New York Review. "Some librarians are outraged," she says, "by the purposeful misrepresentations that Baker makes in telling the history of library preservation, focusing primarily on practices that, as Darnton acknowledges, were in place for a short period of time and abandoned many years ago. Some librarians are angry with Baker's ad hominem attacks on colleagues and their institutions...." She goes on to summarize the realities of preservation and funding, and the other functions that library have to perform in addition to storing original copies of newspapers. She summarizes the statistics on the amount of preservation done in research libraries in a recent year, and she ends by expressing hope that discussion of the issues raised by Baker will result in better understanding of preservation in research libraries.

At least two libraries have published descriptions of their preservation microfilming programs: The National Library of Medicine (whose description ran in this newsletter, April 2001), and Yale. Paul Conway, Head of the Preservation Department at Yale, made a "Brief Statement about Preservation Microfilming at Yale University," which is available at the ARL website. It covers the Yale Survey of the early 1980s, on which the microfilming program was based, and gives information about that program: "Beginning in 1993, and proceeding nearly to the present time, the Preservation Department has preserved on microfilm at least 5,000 volumes from the library's collections every year. Until 1993, the common practice in the Preservation Department was to cut brittle volumes apart so that the pages could be placed flat under the microfilm camera. Books that could be opened nearly flat or that could bear the pressure of flattening under glass were not cut apart. A disbound brittle book rarely can be restored to usable condition. At least fifty percent of all books preserved on microfilm until 1993 were disbound and then withdrawn.... Since 1993, the practice of disbinding books prior to microfilm preservation has been drastically curtailed, but has not ceased altogether."

Barbara Quint's Review: A Light Touch

Searcher Magazine is on the Internet at http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/jun01/voice.htm. It is edited by Barbara Quint, who published her own review June 7, entitled "Don't Burn Books! Burn Librarians!! A Review of Nicholson Baker's Double Fold...."

She hits the ground running: "You know you're going to have trouble with a book when the third word in the title raises your hackles. Libraries do not assault paper, Mr. Baker.... They do not act. People act.

"According to Mr. Baker's book, librarians have been, at best, criminally incompetent and, at worst, diabolically malevolent....

"Well, we all have our little prejudices. Let me state one of mine right up front. I hate having amateurs tell professionals how to do their job, particularly when it's my profession the amateurs are advising."

She continues like this for five more pages, and concludes her review by saying, "If librarians hope to recover their leading role in national discussion of preservation issues—not to mention their benign reputation—they had better get hopping. A quick review of the general press illustrates how easy it is to usurp the public mind, particularly when you lead off your discussion of all micrographic and digitization efforts with a focus on the one thing sure to capture the interest of journalists—the final resting place of their immortal prose."

Then comes a bibliography of 23 other reviews of the same book and a list of 10 useless URLs cited by Baker (out of 34).

The reviewer can be reached at <bquint@infotoday.com.>

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