Baker: Double Fold

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Nicholson Baker, Double Fold : Libraries and the Assault on Paper. New York : Random House, 2001. 370 pages, with notes, references, and index.

What could sound more horrifyingly like Orwellian double speak than "destroying to preserve" coming out of the mouths of librarians and archivists? Yet, this was the enthusiastic motto of many institutions – including the Library of Congress -- when in the 1950s they set about destroying their archives of newspapers published on newsprint. Bound volumes had their spines sawed off, individual pages separated so they could be photographed on microfilm – many poorly photographed – the pages discarded or pulped after the process.

Ever thought of buying a copy of a newspaper from the year you were born? Chances are good that the paper that you buy will have be "de-accessioned" from the collection of the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library, or other large libraries where we might presume that such collections are safely stored. What institution was in the vanguard of "destroying to preserve"? The Library of Congress, that institution that we were taught always had two copies of everything ever published in the United States of America so that our words, ideas, and thoughts might never be lost.

Well, they're being lost at an alarming rate, and acids in paper were being blamed. "Look," forward-looking librarians said, "these newspapers are turning to dust! It's an emergency! We must microfilm our original texts or they will be lost forever!"

But there are several things wrong with this picture. For one, bound volumes of newspapers, although their pages might brown and occasional edges break off, were not turning to dust at all. When microfilming began, the technology was terrible and many films were incomplete and unusable; it hasn't improved all that much, either. Microfilm has not been nearly as stable as its proponents claimed. But the worst was this: to make microfilming efficient, the bound volumes of newspapers had their spines sheared off and the pages were simply pulped after they had been "preserved".

The newspapers were first, but as the filmable remainder of their own bound backfiles dwindled, library planners began to look around for other way to occupy their now fully staffed and equipped information-renewal programs. "It's like having a sausage factory, in a way," one former Library of Congress department head told me. "You've got to feed the beast." (The library owned twenty-four microfilm cameras in 1973; they were shooting seven thousand feet of negative film per day.) Books with brittle paper were one good possibility—shabby, unattractively aging, toned by time. In the mid-sixties, the library, again in the vanguard, began segregating thousands of books that were (as the 1968 annual report of the Council on Library Resources phrased it) "otherwise beyond redemption." Coincidentally, the library needed more space: "Space was a key word in the thinking and activities of this division [the Office of Collections Maintenance and Preservation] during fiscal 1966.," reported the Library of Congress Information Bulletin. In 1967, Verner Clapp's last year as president, the Council gave the Library of Congress (via the Association of Research Libraries) a grant for a Pilot Preservation Project, to explore "arrangements for assuring the preservation of these [brittle] books for the continuing uses of the research community." [pp. 97—98]

What's the relevance to Science Besieged? Double Fold documents the destruction that comes from bad policy based on appealing to slogans and commercial propaganda that illegitimately masquerade as scientific findings. The whole idea of "brittle books" was seriously and cynically overplayed in a bid to create the appearance of an emergency in order to get congress to pony up funds for microfilming – and other even less successful technologies – so that libraries could "preserve" their collections and, not incidentally, avoid building space to house new books. Prevarication and hype about "brittle books" became the order of the day; double-speak meant more funding.

All of this was genuinely impressive, and it helped to remind me of the befuddling divergence, in library language, between conservation and preservation. The two are no longer synonyms—in fact, they are more often antonymic, although library spokespersons have been known to rely on the lay confusion that surrounds their undisclosed redefinition. Conservation refers to the repair or restoration of the original object, the book or manuscript, the empirical, thumbable thing; preservation, on the other hand, though it may embrace the act of conservation, has more generally come to mean, in response to powerful euphemistic requirements, any act that carries on or propagates, in any chosen medium (e.g., the original pages, photocopies, fiche, film, tape cartridge, Microcard, diskette, CD-ROM, Norsam metal disk, and so on) , the words or images of the original object. Thus preservation can mean dumping or other more remunerative forms of dispersal, whereas conservation never does, although of course conservational practices have at times caused unintentional harm. [pp. 107—108]

Putting the lie to the notion that newspapers and "brittle books" have to be preserved before they crumble is several important facts. Foremost is the simple observation that the newspapers and books that were predicted to have turned to dust fifty years ago are still in perfectly usable shape. In addition, private memos undermine public statements that preservation is principle, such memos always stressing how libraries can save space and avoid acquiring new storage space if they microfilm and discard significant and "unnecessary" parts of their collections. Baker points out that the cost of building the necessary space per volume stored costs significantly less than the expensive process of sawing apart and photographing each page of the subject volume. Another nail in that coffin: several libraries that held special, archival editions of newspapers printed on rag paper also discarded those volumes. The irreplaceable and unnecessary losses were tragic.

It isn't just accessible physical copies of books that we lost during that awful period; we also lost content. "A major concern about filming is that many filmed titles have missing pages, even though the film was inspected," Gay Walker wrote – the Ace comb effect applies to books, too. (That is, when libraries replace several differently damaged copies of a book with microfilm of the same copy of a book, and the microfilm turns out to lack something, we're less well off, infomationally as well as artifactually, than we were before the program began.) In the late eighties, the University of California at Berkeley sent test shipments of thirty to fifty books each to five top-notch microfilm labs, telling them that they wanted "the highest quality film of the books sent to them, totally reproducing the text of the volumes." Even in the test batch, one of the five filmers was discovered to have missed pages. Other problems continue to crop up: a 1993 audit of microfilm from Ohio State, Yale, and Harvard found that one third of the film collections "did not resolve to the established ANSI resolution standards": the auditors hypothesized that "some camera or processing settings were incorrect." [pp. 238—239]

Certainly Baker is a bibliophile; it's clear in his impassioned writing. But then, most people reading his book (until it's "preserved" on microfilm or in digital form) will also be book lovers. To most book lovers, librarians are trustworthy angels, guardians of books, therefore of all knowledge and civilization. Imagine the sense of betrayal when a book lover finds out that some librarians instead are more like evil megalomaniacs plotting to rule the world, making ever grander plans for destroying the very books we thought they were caring for.

The name of the book, "Double Fold", refers to the "test" used to demonstrate just how "brittle" older books had become. Fold a corner of a page first forward, then fold it backwards – the double fold. Do this three, or four, or five or more times (there's no common standard), crease the page as necessary, and even give a "little tug" to the corner if needed to pull the corner off, thus demonstrating just how irretrievably brittle a book's pages had become. With friends like these, books need no enemies.

Double Fold may be polemical, it may be impassioned, and it may have an agenda, but that doesn't mean it can't be well-researched and truthful. Even more tragic than the destruction and loss of information and knowledge that's already been suffered would be ignoring the destruction and allowing it to continue unchallenged, particularly when it is unnecessary and dishonest.

Tanselle's tenets, though they were ridiculed by some as being impractical or self-marginalizingly extreme, are really quite simple and helpful. One is that we shouldn't spend lots of time trying to determine which books have artifactual value (or "intrinsic value") and which don't. According to standard library theory, your rank-and-file book is assumed to have no intrinsic value; it is a dented and tarnished word canteen whose contents may be poured off at will into other, often smaller receptacles. A relatively few books—ones that bear a famous person's signature or marginalia, for example—may qualify a objects of artifactual value, and these objects often live in rare-book departments. In practice, writes Tanselle, this categorization is influenced mainly by book dealers' price lists: "Books of high market value will receive expensive conservation treatment, and other books will be microfilmed or photocopied and then thrown out. Such a policy is not worthy of a research library." The distinction between rare books and utilitarian word-ware is not only impossible to make—because the degree of future rare-bookishness is unforeseeable now, as is the degree of informational interest—but harmful, as well: "I think it is undeniable that the common attitude of disregard for the physical evidence in books has produced an insensitivity to the destruction of books that would not be condoned by professionals dealing with any other category of artifact," Tanselle writes.

The truth is that all books 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 condition of museums. All their books are treasures, in a sense: the general stacks become a sort of comprehensive rare-book room—not staffed and serviced as rare-book rooms are, obviously, but understood as occupying the same kind of unreformattable sensorium. Only by "approaching books as museum objects do we most fully and productively read them," Tanselle provocatively writes. 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. That duty continues in force even if publishing undergoes revolutionary changes and libraries buy only electronic texts from some moment forth. The keeping needn't involve expensive measure, however: "Most books are not frequently used, and neglect can sometimes be an artifact's best friend." [pp. 224—225]

Are there alternatives? Of course there are. Not only was the hype of the "brittle book" a lie to funnel federal funds toward libraries to keep microfilm equipment running, but continuing with microfilm continues to be a poor choice, even if "preservation" were the principle concern of its proponents.

Since the perfection of the Xerox machine, microfilming has been unnecessary to any book-preservational act. If I were a preservation administrator, and I were absolutely sure, because I had an infallible accelerated-aging test for paper, that all surviving copies of Edmund Gosse's Questions at Issue at my library and everywhere else were going to disintegrate into illegibility tomorrow at 3:30 P.M., and if I were determined to preserve the contents of that book for the human record, and if I had no secret craving to make use of the shelf space that Gosse's book occupied, would I have the book microfilmed? Certainly not. I would instead make two full-sized eye-readable photocopies, one bound and one unbound. The bound copy would go on the shelf tomorrow, and the unbound one would become the master, and go into storage in order to make copies for other libraries as they wanted them. Preservation photocopying, as it is called, is faster and cheaper than microfilming, and much easier to check for errors and to correct when errors are found than film is (the film technician must splice retakes into the frame sequence, and there is a stipulated limit of three splices per roll), and the image is cleaner on a paper copy, and you don't need to read it on a screen in a windowless hellhole—and you will get a better digital scan and searchable OCR text from it as well, when or if that time comes.

Savage, ungovernable space yearnings, in concert with an ill-conceived long-term plan to stock the sparkling digital pond with film-hatchery trout—these, and not groundwood pulp or alum-rosin sizing, were the real root causes of the brittle-books crisis. [pp. 182—183]

-- Notes by JNS

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