Vol. 9 No. 6 June 2001
Don't Burn Books! Burn Librarians!!
A Review of Nicholson Baker's
Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper
by Barbara Quint Editor, Searcher Magazine
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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. 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 Mr. Burke:

Certainly, 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. 

Your representative 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;].

Clients, like 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. 

Librarians serve 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.
Perhaps Mr. Baker's historical sensibilities are contagious. Somehow an image keeps reappearing in my mind. Step back through the mists of time, and there he stands in the middle of the 15th century, high on a parapet at Monte Casino (the birthplace of Western monasticism), arms raised, fists clenched in protest.
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. 

Content matters, not format. Format only matters when it affects the endurance and transmission of content.

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 ever acquired.
Where's a Digital Archive When You Need One?
By the way, Mr. Baker, in the 16 pages of references at the end of your book, 34 carry URLs; you might like to know, 10 of them are already useless:

Of course we could check the Virtual Library for the Virtuous Web Archive, but that remains something librarians still have to build.

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 sources? 

But Seriously, Folks
Enough kidding 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.

All librarians 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. 

Access increased, 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 to microfilming.

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,"]

"Our profession 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 solutions. 

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 its civilization. 

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 this paragon:

The truth 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 duplicitas, 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 "duplicity":

Doubleness 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:
Far from the duplicity wickedly charged on him, he acted his part with alacrity and resolution.
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.) 
Librarians Respond to the Assault
Librarians around 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 [] carrying a series of links to these responses. The site was still under development. 

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:

  • 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 Newsletter.

  • 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 Monday.
Anyone interested in adding to the site's collection should forward electronic copy to and mail the original to the attention of Meg Bellinger at Preservation Resources, 9 South Commerce Way, Bethlehem, PA 18017. 

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 [].

The Association of Research Libraries is also tracking responses to Mr. Baker's work [] with copies of their own responses and links to others. Send any such responses or links you notice to Mary Case []. 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, and Columbia University at

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.

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. 

Dwight Garner, "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+. 

Malcolm Jones, "Paper Tiger: Taking Librarians to Task," Newsweek, April 16, 2001, p. 57.

Michiko Kakutani, "Microfilm Gets a Black Eye from a Friend of Paper," New York Times, April 10, 2001, pp. E10.

Jennifer Howard, "Double Fold: Libraries and the ...," Washington Post, April 15, 2001, Final Edition, "Book World" section, p. T02. 

Elaine Sciolino, "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," Los 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. 

Michael Upchurch, "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+. 

Polly Shulman, "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+. 

Peter Terzian, "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," San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, November 2, 2000, pp. A17+. 

Margaria Fichtner, "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," Columbia State, Sunday, April 22, 2001, p. E6. 

Jerry Harkavy, "A Passion for Past Papers: Author's Collection Devoted to Old Dailies," Dayton 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," Observer, Sunday, April 22, 2001, p. 22.

By the way, fans of Mr. Baker have started a Web site in his honor,,. 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.

This one 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+.
This was 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 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. 
However, if Mr. Baker will examine the alternative formats in his word processor software, he will find any number of fonts that can convert any text to script, as illustrated in this sentence written with the assistance of Microsoft Word.
Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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