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. Libraries
do not save paper, Mr. Baker. Libraries do not do anything. Libraries
are buildings and institutional abstractions. They do not act. People act.
Your targets —
and you know it, Mr. Baker — are librarians.
According to Mr.
Baker's book, librarians have been, at best, criminally incompetent and,
at worst, diabolically malevolent. They have actively and vigorously pursued
the goal of destroying books, those artifacts of the human mind, for no
more legitimate reason than the pursuit of professional chic. Hapless tools
of their own gadget-loving compulsions? Career mad, self-important hacks
with no concept of professional ethics and responsibility? Or something
worse, something Mr. Baker can only hint at — hint after hint after hint
on page after page after page? Has the light of Mr. Baker's Lantern of
Truth touched the edges of a dark, dire Cold War plot by the dreaded "military-industrial
complex"? Otherwise, how can one explain the frequency with which the word
"CIA" turns up in the resumes of the villains who perpetrated this dastardly
deed using money supplied by all-too-trusting taxpayers?
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. Having said that, however,
it is perfectly legitimate for clients or patrons or end-users or whatever
you call the people we serve to evaluate and criticize the outcome of professional
conduct. In this regard, I apply the same standard as that which Edmund
Burke set for another form of service professional, politicians. To quote
gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to
live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved
communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight
with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention.
It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions,
to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest
to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened
conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set
of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from
the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the
abuse of which he is deeply answerable.
owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead
of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion ["Speech to the Electors
of Bristol," November 3, 1774; http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html].
constituents, should tell professionals what they want and evaluate the
outcome of the professionals' efforts. But clients should also heed the
considered professional judgment of the professionals that serve them and
put some trust in their expertise and, one prays, in their character. Probably
the most painful effect of Mr. Baker's book is its harsh criticism of individual
leaders in the library field and of the profession as a whole. Librarians
have had to learn to live with a patronizing condescension toward their
profession, but rarely have we had to deal with active distrust of our
motives or good will.
The curse of the
library profession has always lain in the lack of awareness clients have
as to what librarians actually do, what librarianship is all really about.
Librarians do not serve books. They do not serve databases or microfilm
or CD-ROMs. They do not serve large buildings filled with shelving. There
were librarians before books, in monasteries handling scrolls. There were
probably librarians before paper, handling clay tablets.
people. They are the custodians of the human mind. They link the thoughts
and knowledge and expressions of one set of people with the need or desire
to hear and see those thoughts, that knowledge, those expressions by another
set of people. They defy time and space and any other barriers in order
to protect and nurture and complete such connections. This is their mission.
To perform this mission,
they create archives to prevent the loss of any content that the minds
given into their charge or minds yet unborn might want or need. This principle
of archiving strikes deep into the history of our profession. But as deep
or deeper strikes the principle of access. We do not preserve material
just for the sake of doing so. We preserve it for use.
Many years ago,
while still in high school, I paid my first visit to a genuine research
library. I had a senior paper to complete and I needed a copy of John Locke's
Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). After a couple of failed
attempts, I realized that the secret to working the closed-stack system
then in use at UCLA's University Research Library was to place several
orders at once for the same material and hope that at least one version
would be on the shelf. It worked. They handed me a volume of Locke's works,
an outsized book with thick black library binding. When I opened it up,
I noticed that the letter "F" came without a crossbar, looking like a slithery
"S." Very antique style of type. The title page provided the clue to explain
this oddity. The book I held in my hand had been printed just 10 years
after John Locke died. It was an 18th century publication.
Mr. Baker is right.
Paper can endure a long time. But what moved me then and still moves me
is the magnificent spirit of the librarians who would give some visiting
high school student an object that most would characterize as a rare book.
Those librarians would not allow themselves to cling to a book as object,
as collectible, when that same book could do its job of introducing the
still-living mind of Mr. John Locke to another mind waiting to hear him.
Those librarians believed in knowledge. They went to work each day to build
a research library, not an intellectual extension of the Antique Road Show
or some storage warehouse.
not format. Format only matters when it affects the endurance and transmission
However, in this
regard, Mr. Baker charges that the microfilming programs in libraries over
the past 60 years have led to the systematic destruction of original copies
of material which librarians could and should have protected. He amasses
a large amount of technical material to prove his point. Not being a paper
scientist or a conservator, I cannot critique the accuracy of his research.
(I will say, however, that in close to 20 years working for the Rand Corporation,
I never heard the name of Philip Morse, whom Mr. Baker describes as "the
founder of the Rand Corporation." Upon checking with Rand, it seems Mr.
Morse was an early member of their Board of Trustees (1948-49, 1950-62).
Oops! Is my "military-industrial complex" connection showing? Sorry, Mr.
Baker.) Nonetheless, a quick survey of colleagues got explosive reactions
to the notion propagated by Mr. Baker that books sitting on library shelves
do not erode into unusability. Meg Bellinger, President of OCLC's Preservation
Resources, described the "confetti bin," a spot for books beyond repair.
I myself have ordered books from out-of-print dealers and had the corners
of yellow-brown pages snap off in my hand and clumps of pages pull out
of the binding.
The tone of Mr.
Baker's book is clearly polemical and he forthrightly admits that he has
taken a prosecutorial approach in presenting his case. As with any collection
of research done by an amateur, a non-participant, there are some inaccuracies
or observations that will startle and even amuse professionals reading
the book. For example, in one of the handful of pages where Mr. Baker shows
any concern for issues of access, he grudgingly admits that interlibrary
loan staff must find it easier to ship spools of microfilmed newspaper
or journal archives rather than piles of bound volumes. Perhaps there are
some librarians who ship out sets of microfilm in answer to ILL requests,
and, if there are, I'd appreciate their sending me their credit card and
SSN identification data, so I can continue to support my Amazon-alcoholism
in the style to which it's become accustomed.
One of Mr. Baker's
essential arguments, however, pooh-poohs any claims librarians make as
to space problems and completely condemns the idea that such weak arguments
should ever lead to the "de-accessioning" or "weeding" of library material.
On this, I stand almost speechless — almost. Mr. Baker, trust me. Trust
all of us. Every librarian suffers from space problems. Most librarians
design their working lives around handling space problems. Any librarian
working with a collection will end up removing items to keep a collection
vital and manageable. In public libraries, today's hot best-seller requires
the purchase of multiple copies to handle the demand. In just a few years,
you only need one or two. In academic libraries, changes in curricula and
faculty mean changes in collection policy. Nobody, absolutely nobody, collects
everything — not even the Library of Congress, the primary target of Mr.
Baker's contempt. Nobody, absolutely nobody, keeps everything they have
But in a career
spanning decades, I have never met a librarian who embarked on a weeding
project without planning it in advance, considering it carefully as they
did it, and worrying about their decisions afterwards. My last major project
in a traditional library setting involved weeding tens of thousands of
reports and, over 15 years later, I still wake up in the night and remember
throwing out that pamphlet recommending policies for German reunification.
For the rest of the world, the fall of the Berlin Wall was unalloyed joy;
for me, guilt, guilt, guilt.
In one chapter,
not satisfied with indicting libraries for having switched to microfilm
instead of keeping decade upon decade upon century of daily newspapers,
he expands his demands into the need to keep every edition of every daily.
That's right — the morning edition, the evening edition, the "valley" edition,
the "mountain" edition. Mr. Baker apparently does not believe in the concept
of "issue of record," which even newspaper publishers have traditionally
aspired to. Actually, however, this is a problem that time and technology
have solved, at least for future issues. Most newspaper publishers now
consider electronic databases the "issue of record." For example, if you
search TheLos Angeles Times database on any of its many outlets,
you will get all the original content which the Times owns, regardless
of the edition in which it was published. This gift of full available archive
exists — and, practically speaking, can only exist — in the "bottomless
newshole" of electronic database environments. Of course, we do lose layout
and ads and ....
Nice try, techies!
But not good enough for Mr. Baker. The experiential nature of handling
print, of holding a book that generations have held, of touching a newspaper
that newsboys with rolled up knickers could have hawked for pennies on
street corners in Gotham, USA, a century or more ago — about these sensory
thrills Mr. Baker waxes romantic. He ignores, however, the very limited
scope of this love affair. Should librarians keep just one or two copies
of some aging, ancient texts in every library in the land, preserved in
a "sensorium" so everyone can get at least one chance for an intellectual
buzz? Or should we save up our pennies and open an unlimited account with
Travelocity for flying patrons around the country to reach all their favorite
around. Do Mr. Baker's arguments have any merit? In one or two respects,
I think so. As I said above, content matters, not format. Format only matters
when it affects the endurance and transmission of content.
know and have known from the beginning that microform is an ugly format.
Even Dan Arbour, vice-president of the UMI division at Bell and Howell,
admitted in conversation — after a suitable pause — that it was "not user-friendly."
On the other hand, you can create paper copies from microform. Admittedly,
newsprint offers dire challenges, both in the erratic quality of the original
and the difficult, oversized shape. Frankly, in this regard, piecing together
clippings for a morgue paste-up job doesn't produce the finest quality,
either. But normal-sized publications with good-sized margins and clean
white paging can provide acceptable copy. Look at the dissertations that
UMI Division produces. Without UMI's effort, dissertations would probably
have stayed scattered across campuses, some in library special collections,
some in departmental file safes, some lost and gone forever. UMI's microfilming
program brought that entire literature to public availability.
The main accomplishment
of microfilming newspapers and journals and out-of-print books has been
to increase, "exponentially," according to Mr. Arbour, the delivery of
content to libraries and their patrons. "We have literally put content
in thousands if not tens of thousands of libraries around the world. The
number is huge in terms of impact and of end patrons. You ask any public
librarian and they'll tell you that newspaper archives are among the most
heavily used. If you tried to keep only print, the high usage would deteriorate
the material too quickly." More to the point, librarians at most public
libraries and all but the largest university libraries would simply not
have collected and archived any newspapers but their home town paper, if
that. They might have subscribed to a couple of out-of-town papers, but
they would never have archived them. Once microfilming took hold, librarians
everywhere began collecting newspaper archives.
but problems remain. Mr. Baker is right. Microfilm could not then and,
generally, cannot now re-create all the elements of the original source
— no color, no clear graphics, no extras. With only rare exceptions, e.g,.
some medical journals, microfilming at UMI means black and white only.
At this point in time, that rule of thumb also applies to digitization
— except for National Geographic (done at the publisher's request) and
Playboy (which they have stopped digitizing in color as too expensive)
— but Dan Arbour predicts that color digitization could become commonplace
in as little as 3 years.
Looking back with
20-20 hindsight, librarians should probably have archived a few clean,
mint-condition copies of all the originals on the hope and assumption that,
as time went by, technology would improve and we would need the originals
to work from then. Of course, maintaining those copies in mint condition
would have required sharply curtailing or eliminating entirely any access.
Central repositories designed specifically for this purpose or networked
"repository status" for Last Known Copies could have helped earlier in
the process. American librarians might also have followed the European
microfilming practice of using special equipment to avoid the necessity
of "guillotining" or slicing the binding away from print material preparatory
In this regard,
our profession should learn from history and protect our future flexibility
as we embark upon the next technological round — digitization of images.
We should create repositories, not only for print, but for other formats,
including changing technical standards that can create digital orphans.
Abby Smith of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR),
an organization standing at about the same low level in Mr. Baker's opinion
as LC, points out an interesting paradox, "The problem with digitization
is that it works just the reverse of paper. The more you use a book, the
less durable it becomes, but if digital copy isn't used, it disappears."
She speaks of magnetic storage, having given up on optical storage after
rapid changes in standards left too many "digital orphans." [CLIR has a
recent Task Force report available for comment on the subject of preserving
original formats ("The Evidence in Hand: The Report of the Task Force on
the Artifact in Library Collections," http://www.clir.org/activities/details/artifact-docs.html).]
should learn from history...." Did you read that? Now, he's got me doing
it. Our profession has built repositories. Our profession has
identified the problems. Our profession is wrestling with their
So Who Cares
What He Says?
There are complex
and critical matters to consider. Digitizing must encompass not only reproductions
of print realities but capturing and archiving digital-only reality, the
creations of the Web world, a task of epic proportions. It would help if
we didn't have to trip over Mr. Baker and his ilk on the road to the future.
This is no time for librarians to lose their reputations for judgment and
probity. Mr. Baker's book provides the worst imaginable grounds on which
to hold public debate over society's need and responsibility to archive
Can we get rid
of him? Will he just go away? If one accepted all the elements of Mr. Baker's
view of reality, logically one would regard his complaints as interesting
but irrelevant to the coming debate on digitization. After 60 years in
the merciless hands of fiends dedicated to the "assault on paper," how
much paper of any value could remain? If you believe Mr. Baker, his book
is an autopsy — the subject died!
But logic has little
to do with it. For many people, including funders, libraries represent
a symbol of knowledge, rather than a reality. Faculty who haven't held
anything but a photocopy of a journal article in their hand for years will
rise in rebellion at the cancellation of a print journal subscription,
though the digital version would give them better copy. People who rely
on the Web for most of their research will sign petitions for more library
building funds, but not Web archiving funds. Fortunately, some of this
has begun changing. Recently life scientists have begun a rebellion against
scholarly publishers denying cheap or free digital archives to research
in their fields. If those publishers hang tough — and they have that reputation
— battling scholars in many fields may start to move research to Web-only
formats. And as that happens, we librarians must be in position to build
the archives and provide the access connections.
At this moment,
when we face the greatest challenge to our profession in millennia, here
comes Mr. Baker, portraying digitization issues as the next nitwittery
from the imbeciles who inflicted microfilm archives on the world and destroyed
the print they were hired to protect. More than that, we lied to do it.
Are there any librarians
whom Mr. Baker might trust? Yes. G. Thomas Tanselle, vice president of
the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Here is how Mr. Baker describes
is that all book are physical artifacts, without exception, just as all
books are bowls of ideas. They are things and utterances both. And libraries,
Tanselle believes, since they own, whether they like it or not, collections
of physical artifacts, must aspire to the conditions of museums.... Once
a large research library makes the decision to add a particular book to
its collection, it has a responsibility to try to keep that physical book
in its collection forever.
But, Mr. Baker, librarians
are not museum curators. The great breach between your image of librarianship
and ours comes when we place that "artifact" in peril, as we do every moment
of every day and eagerly, by trying to circulate it. We believe in access.
We only acquire and retain material because of its potential for use. The
difference is simple. When a librarian looks at an empty shelf, they say,
"There's a job well done." When a museum curator looks at an empty shelf,
they say, "CALL 911!"
More harmful than
any disagreement over goals, no matter how vast, is the character assassination
this book has made on almost the entire profession of librarianship. The
title of the book, Double Fold, contains a double reference — one
to the repeated bending of page corners which some preservationists recommend
as a test of a book's physical condition, and second to the Latin word
meaning, according to Mr. Baker, "double-foldedness," and from which the
English word duplicity stems. We started this review off with a
quote from Edmund Burke and let us conclude with one. In an online version
of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913), we find a definition
of heart or speech; insincerity; a sustained form of deception which consists
in entertaining or pretending to entertain one of feelings, and acting
as if influenced by another; bad faith.
But with that definition
comes a usage by Burke whose language might fit in a defense of our profession:
the duplicity wickedly charged on him, he acted his part with alacrity
Let that be anything
but our epitaph!
(By the way, you
may have noticed that I did not include full bibliographic information
in this book review. But you're all librarians. Look it up.)
Respond to the Assault
the country, particularly those connected to preservation efforts, have
begun to respond. Meg Bellinger, president of OCLC Preservation Resources,
informed us at presstime that OCLC had opened a Web site [http://www.oclc.org/oclc/presres/pubpres/bakerpage.htm]
carrying a series of links to these responses. The site was still under
Initial links actually
referred to an earlier essay that preceded the book — "Deadline: A Desperate
Plea to Stop the Trashing of America's Historic Newspapers," The New
Yorker, July 24, 2000, pp. 42-61. At presstime, the site linked to
four informative pieces:
in adding to the site's collection should forward electronic copy to firstname.lastname@example.org
and mail the original to the attention of Meg Bellinger at Preservation
Resources, 9 South Commerce Way, Bethlehem, PA 18017.
R. Bruce Arnold, chair
of the Paper Aging Research Program at the ASTM (American Society of Testing
and Materials), July 27, 2000, letter to The New Yorker.
Walter Cybulski, preservation
librarian, July 28, 2000 letter to The New Yorker.
Mitchell Badler, publisher-editor,
in the August 2000 issue of Micrographics & Hybrid Imaging Systems
Richard J. Cox, professor
at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences, with a
lengthy and bibliographically thorough response to the initial article
and to some responses that followed in the December 4, 2000, issue of First
The Library of
Congress also responded, but, apparently, TheNew Yorker did not
see fit to publish the response. If you should seek information on paper
preservation from them, contact LC's Public Affairs Office [http://www.loc.gov].
of Research Libraries is also tracking responses to Mr. Baker's work [http://www.arl.org/preserv/baker.html]
with copies of their own responses and links to others. Send any such responses
or links you notice to Mary Case [email@example.com].
Several large research libraries have begun posting preservation policies
in defense against Mr. Baker's book, e.g., the National Library of Medicine
(NLM) at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/psd/pcm/nlmprespract.html,
and Columbia University at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/services/preservation/policies.html.
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
Herewith a quick
list of some other reviews of the book and article:
Barry Chad, "Double
Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper," Library Journal, vol.
126, no. 6, April 1, 2001, p.119.
Carl Sessions Stepp,
"Disintegrating into Dust," American Journalism Review, vol. 23,
no. 3, April, 2001, p. 61.
"The Collector" (an interview), New York Times Book Review, vol.
106, no. 15 , Sunday edition, April 15, 2001, p. 9.
David Gates, "Paper
Chase: Nicholson Baker Makes a Case for Saving Old Books andNewspapers"
(cover story), New York Times Book Review, vol. 106, no. 15 , Sunday
edition, April 15, 2001, pp. 8+.
"Paper Tiger: Taking Librarians to Task," Newsweek, April 16, 2001,
"Microfilm Gets a Black Eye from a Friend of Paper," New York Times,
April 10, 2001, pp. E10.
"Double Fold: Libraries and the ...," Washington Post, April 15,
2001, Final Edition, "Book World" section, p. T02.
"Saving Books? Hmm, It Looks Easy on Paper," New York Times, Late
Final Edition, April 7, 2001, p. 7.
John Maxwell Hamilton,
"What Would Dewey Say? Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper,"
Angeles Times, Home Edition, April 22, 2001, pp. 6+.
Katherine A. Powers,
"The Rage for Destruction at Libraries," Boston Globe, Sunday, April
22, 2001, p. B4.
"A Bibliophile Defends the Printed Page 'Double Fold' Suggests What a Gizmo-Gullible
Country We Live In," Chicago Tribune, Sunday, April 1, 2001, "Book
Section," pp. 2+.
"Dust to Dust / Old Newspapers and Books Are Dying Every Day. Believe It
Or Not, the Primary Villains Are Librarians," Newsday, Saturday
April 14, 2001, pp. B09+.
"The Man Who Saved the New York World/Meet Nicholson Baker, mild-mannerednovelist.
When he discovered that libraries were selling off oldnewspapers, he turned
into an unlikely crusader," Newsday, Tuesday April 10, 2001, Part
II, pp. B06+.
Kevin Fagan, "Battling
to Preserve Remnants of History Newspaper Archives Expensive and Complex,"
Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, November 2, 2000, pp. A17+.
"Take This Book and Shelve It," Miami Herald, Sunday, April 8, 2001,
Arts Section, p. 9M.
Sandy Levy, "Death
of Paper? — Libraries Face the Modern Age," Baltimore Sun, Sunday
April 15, 2001, p. 13F.
Merle Rubin, "The
Bonfire of Books," Christian Science Monitor, Thursday, April 05,
2001, p. 20.
William W. Starr,
"Conan the Librarian? Books' Guardians Are Destroying Them, Author Says,"
State, Sunday, April 22, 2001, p. E6.
"A Passion for Past Papers: Author's Collection Devoted to Old Dailies,"
Daily News, Sunday, April 15, 2001, p. 8A.
Ed Vulliamy, "History
in Peril from 'Slash and Burn' Librarians: Novelist LaunchesCrusade to
Save the World's Newspapers and Books from Destruction byFanatics of Microfiche,"
Sunday, April 22, 2001, p. 22.
By the way, fans
of Mr. Baker have started a Web site in his honor, http://www.j-walk.com/nbaker/index.html,.
Though devoted primarily to his work as a novelist and literary essayist,
we found there full bibliographic citations to his previous assistance
to the library community:
"Weeds: A Talk
at the Library," Reclaiming San Francisco: history, politics, culture.
A City Lights Anthology, edited by James Brook, Chris Carlsson,
and Nancy J. Peters. San Francisco: City Lights,1998, p.35 — 50.
Mr. Baker assures us in Double Fold did not really lead to the firing
of the then head of the San Francisco Public Library.
"The Author vs. the
Library," New Yorker, vol. 14, October 1996, pp. 50+.
the one where Mr. Baker indicted librarians for discarding their printed
card catalogs, just because they had replaced them with distasteful OPACs.
In particular, Mr. Baker bemoaned the loss of those charming, hand-written
notations on the cards. One wonders whether Mr. Baker will ever forgive
OCLC for existing, even if it succeeds in bringing its Enhanced World Catalog
to fruition with all the promised extra information poured into bibliographic
records on the order of an Amazon.com record — cover art, multiple reviews,
reader comments and ratings, alternative recommended titles, etc. But,
sad to say, at present OCLC has apparently made no commitment to hand-writing
any of those enhancements.