Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper
by Nicholson Baker
A review by Stephanie Zacharek
Anyone who cares passionately about anything it could be something as mundane
as movies or as rarefied as, say, lighthouses or cactuses or antique kimonos
has probably been told at one time or another, "Lighten up! You're taking
it all too seriously." There's always an undercurrent of hostility to those
words. Declaring a subject unimportant is a way for people to ease their own
feelings of inadequacy, to make those who have bothered to care into the kooks,
That's why Nicholson Baker's exquisitely researched, gorgeously oddball Double
Fold brought me to tears more than once: Among contemporary literature I've
rarely read so passionate a book, and it's not just Baker's cause, the rescue
from destruction of books and newspapers in our libraries, that got me. It's
the way he's so willing, over and over again, to creep out on a limb, to risk
readers' ridicule, taking them to and past the point where they are likely to
say, "This guy just cares too much."
And Baker does care far beyond the realm of what might be considered normal,
which is precisely the point. Some people (librarians especially) are sure to
accuse Baker of being too heated, of not having enough distance from his subject
to write a balanced treatise. To hell with that kind of balance. Baker gives
us something much rarer. His passion is bound up in the very fibers of the pages;
it's as concrete as the binding. Baker could have written a wholesome, boring,
respectable tome about how the fate of the nation's books and newspapers hangs
perilously in the balance. As it is, Baker's research is tireless and sound,
and yet the tone of Double Fold is its own best argument: It's as close as
a book can come to a living, breathing being.
Resolutely absorbing, Double Fold also reads like a spy novel. Baker cuts
to the bone, layer by layer, of a secret tragedy that has been insidiously playing
itself out in libraries across the nation since the 1950s. Claiming that they
need to destroy in order to preserve, library administrators have been transferring
newspapers and so-called brittle books to microfilm and other media and then
destroying the originals. Why don't they keep the originals? Their chief excuse,
as they squawk loudly and often throughout Double Fold, is that they don't
have the storage space.
Or, alternately, there isn't a storage problem at all, depending on whom you
ask. "Oh, no, it wouldn't be the space," says Diane Kresh, formerly the head
of the Library of Congress' Preservation Directorate, when Baker asks her why
microfilmed newspapers were discarded. "It's the inherent vice of deteriorating
paper, and particularly newsprint."
Baker has always been the sort of writer who builds strata of odd details;
he's the guy who notices the little curlicue in the corner that everyone else
misses. (In the introduction to Double Fold he begins his explanation of how
the book came about like this: "In 1993, I decided to write some essays on trifling
topics movie projectors, fingernail clippers, punctuation, and the history
of the word 'lumber.'")
This time, as workmanlike as a carpenter, he dismantles the careless logic
of those who have championed this devastation of our heritage. He starts out
by shaving away at the commonly held theory that newspapers printed after 1870
the year in which American newspaper mills replaced stable, durable rag pulp
with pulp made from ground wood are destined to turn to dust anyway ("any
minute, soon, in a matter of a few years," Baker notes, quoting the various
nebulous time estimates for when this disintegration will be complete). He tells
of bogus aging-simulation tests performed on sample papers and describes the
fervor of early microfilming enthusiasts, none of whom bothered to make sure
that microfilm itself would provide a consistently readable record of a newspaper
or book (in many, many cases it doesn't) or even if it would necessarily last
longer than paper (Bummer! It doesn't).
One of those early enthusiasts was Verner Clapp, the No. 2 man at the Library
of Congress in the postwar years, who dreamed of a day when microfilm machines
would be "as natural and as essential as the tooth-brush, the ball-point pen,
or as eyeglasses." Clapp, a former CIA operative, believed so strongly in microfilm
that he didn't seem to care if it could actually be read or not. Baker observes
that all the notes Clapp kept on microfilming were written on paper and are
easily readable today. On the other hand, his CIA file, copied from microfilm,
is barely legible. "The copy that the CIA sent me," Baker writes, "is poignantly
stamped with the words BEST COPY AVAILABLE on almost every nearly indecipherable
Baker explains how he came to rescue (in other words, purchase), from the British
Library's newspaper collection, a rare complete set of Joseph Pulitzer's World,
an exceptionally beautiful late 19th century paper. (Double Fold includes
a set of dashing color plates that give you a sense of the World's splendor.
One of the plates also shows a color page rendered on microfilm: The illustration,
gorgeous and finely detailed in the original, is reduced to a puddle of gray
mud on microfilm.) Baker also stresses that his bound volumes of the World and
other newspapers of a similar vintage are nowhere near close to disintegrating.
You can still read them; you can still turn the pages.
Once so many libraries found themselves comfortable with the idea of destroying
newspapers, they turned their attention to allegedly fragile books. The title
of Double Fold comes from a test commonly used by librarians to determine
a book's fragility. They see how many times they can fold and crease a page
corner until it breaks off. But who, says Baker, reads a book this way? He pulls
from his own shelf a book that he has greatly enjoyed (an 1893 edition of Edmund
Gosse's "Questions at Issue") and devises his own test, opening the book to
a middle page and turning it first back, and then forward, 400 times that's
399 times more than you'd turn that page in a single reading of the book. His
conclusion? "'Questions at Issue' was (by definition) a very brittle book, if
you compared it with brand-new paper, or old rag paper, but my ten minutes of
research indicated that I would be able to read it four hundred times, which
Baker explains the creepy doublespeak of "preservation" and "conservation,"
two terms that library administrators use interchangeably to bamboozle the public,
even though they mean very different things. "Conservation" refers to the repair
or restoration of the actual object; "preservation," although it may encompass
conservation, has generally come to mean the transfer of a book's contents to
another medium, such as a photocopy, microfilm, microfiche or a diskette. Baker
spends a great deal of time with micropreservation zealots like Patricia Battin,
head of the National Endowment for the Humanities' Commission on Preservation
and Access, who clearly doesn't seem to care much whether the originals are
preserved or not. Baker repeatedly quotes Battin's dramatic statements, which
amount to thinly veiled scare tactics: "80 percent of the materials in our libraries
are published on acid paper and will inevitably crumble. The Library of Congress
alone reports that 77,000 volumes in its collections move each year from the
'endangered' state to brittleness and thence to crumbs."
"Thence to crumbs?" Baker asks a very good question. How many of us have
actually seen or held a book that has been reduced to crumbs? Baker doesn't
need to make the case that these people's arguments are based on loopy logic
that's self-evident. Even more outlandish, Baker explains in detail, is a
costly (and, for now at least, discontinued) Library of Congress project that
involved the use of large quantities of a highly reactive substance called diethyl
zinc to de-acidify books and thus keep them healthy. Just what is diethyl zinc?
"For one thing," Baker says, "your nose would promptly burst into flame if you
opened a test tube of it and took a sniff." If you read that in a James Bond
novel, you'd call it preposterous.
Baker, polite but mule stubborn, goes about the business of gathering and presenting
this information much as Jessica Mitford did in her muckraking exposé of the
American funeral industry, The
American Way of Death.Musing on his conversation with the Library of Congress'
Kresh about the "inherent vice of deteriorating paper" or was it the storage
problem? he writes, "The library has spent huge sums on microfilming, and
its preservation budget is more than eleven million dollars a year enough
to buy, build, and outfit a warehouse the size of a Home Depot, which would
hold a century of newsprint." The common-sense zinger comes next: "Are the library's
senior managers really so grotesquely inept that they can't plan for the inevitable
growth of the single most important hoard of human knowledge in this country?
Does Baker care too much? The nation's high-profile library professionals probably
think so. It's certain that, at the very least, they would just like him out
of their hair.
The angle that makes Double Fold so extraordinary is that Baker isn't just
criticizing from the sidelines. In August 1999, he received the list of American
papers that the British Library was discarding; it would first offer the papers
to interested libraries and nonprofit institutions and then sell off to private
dealers anything that hadn't been claimed. In an effort to save the papers,
Baker scrambled to form his own nonprofit organization, the American Newspaper
Repository. The British Library refused to grant the papers; Baker would have
to put bids on them, as if he were a private dealer.
And so he did. Putting up his own money, he was able to purchase the World
and several other papers, but he lost a number of others, including the complete
Chicago Tribune from 1888 to 1958, which went to a rare-newspaper dealer in
Pennsylvania. With a combination of grant money and donations, he was able to
acquire those papers as well. At his own expense he now stores those papers,
along with the ones he purchased himself, in a warehouse in New Hampshire, where
they will be accessible to scholars who need them.
The most telling exchange in Double Fold occurs near the beginning of the
book, although its significance snaps into the clearest focus at the very end.
Baker has made a trip to the warehouse of Historic Newspaper Archives Inc.,
in Rahway, N.J., a company that buys discarded bound volumes of newspapers and
slices them apart to sell individual papers, through catalogs such as Miles
Kimball or Hammacher Schlemmer, as keepsakes.
During his visit, Baker explains to Hy Gordon, the head of the company's archives,
that it bothers him that so many libraries are effectively destroying history
by getting rid of their bound newspapers.
"Don't be distressed," Gordon says. "There are a lot of things more important
in life." By the time you've reached the last chapter of Double Fold, where
Baker baldly reveals that he and his wife put up their own retirement savings
to rescue and house all those condemned newspapers, I defy you to name even