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Paper tiger

Nicholson Baker keeps it all in print

by Elizabeth Manus

[Nicholson Baker] If it's true that you possess only the things you have lost forever, then American research libraries are rolling in them. This is clear by the end of Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, a jeremiad cum cautionary tale for the information age.

Paper science and library history are not the kind of subjects that cause one's pupils to dilate. But novelist Baker (The Mezzanine, Vox, The Fermata, et al.) brings his fictional skills to bear -- tint and hue, warp and woof. The result? A 38-chapter romp that reads like a variation on Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? as told to Thomas Pynchon and reinterpreted by Lewis Carroll, with George Orwell as outside consultant. Except that the victims here are grand newspapers, and the crimes are perpetrated in places some consider cathedrals.

The story begins in 1996, after Baker has written a piece for the New Yorker about how the San Francisco Public Library carted off a few hundred thousand books to a landfill because they wouldn't fit into a new library building. This prompts a telephone call from a newspaper collector named Bill Blackbeard, who alerts Baker that the Library of Congress has replaced most of its enormous collection of late-19th-century and 20th-century newspapers with microfilm and that "research libraries are relying on what he called `fraudulent' scientific studies to justify the discarding of books and newspapers." Two years later, Baker decides to look into this. He discovers bad, bad things. The last one happened in 1999, when the British Library quietly announced it was bidding farewell to its collection of American newspapers printed after 1850. A desperate Baker quickly formed a nonprofit organization called the American Newspaper Repository in order to save complete runs of some of the country's most important mass-circulation papers. He now stores some 11,000 volumes in a warehouse in Rollinsford, New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, he learned that libraries value space even more than they value their own collections. But rather than building additional storage facilities, some of the most prominent libraries in the land seized on the destructive and costly solution of microfilm. Librarians have believed (and still do) that paper dating from 1870 onward is too acidic to endure. The "double fold" test -- creasing a corner and then folding it back and forth until it breaks -- was used to determine brittleness. Baker reveals this test for what it is: an irrelevant scientific exercise. People read by turning pages. Thus, an 1893 work by Edmund Gosse that instantly fails the double-fold test passes his page-turning test. "My fold-failing page has just flexed 800 times (at two bends per cycle) with no hint of damage," Baker writes, dismantling the primary justification -- paper is "turning to dust" -- for clearing space.

Still, the accepted wisdom, trumpeted by the Library of Congress, was that brittle paper must be either converted to microfilm or deacidified. Deacidification involved experiments in which books were baked, gassed with ammonia fumes, and even "pickled" -- sprayed with chemicals and wrapped in aluminum foil. Microfilming meant destruction in the name of preservation. To photograph pages with dispatch, librarians "guillotined" bound materials, slicing books and newspapers down their spines. They could have filmed without doing harm, but the space clock was ticking loudly; this way was faster. And now that everything was safe, on film, they might as well dump the remains, right?

[Nicholson Baker] Wrong. Microfilm is perishable and comes with a high margin of error. There is fading; there are holes, blackouts. And in the case of newspapers, what has been "saved" is questionable. A machine cannot "read" a 19th century broadsheet crammed with text and lit by four-color illustrations the way the naked eye will do. One look at the illustrations in Baker's book is all you need.

Even with a supposedly high-quality scanning operation like JSTOR, "the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's digitally copied database of scholarly periodicals," text gets garbled. When Baker searches JSTOR for "modem life," he gets "hits going back to the April 1895 issue of Mind: the character-recognition software has difficulty distinguishing between `rn' and `m' and hasn't yet been told that there were no modems in 1895."

Baker himself doesn't read today's newspapers. And he doesn't consider any papers to contain accurate reports. "They're fascinatingly inaccurate," he explains over the telephone from the Repository. "The whole joy of looking at a turn-of-the century newspaper is how skewed it is. Of course it's not a literal record of the times; you read it the way you read any primary source, as an expression of the interests or hopes of the person who writes it."

So millions of newspapers and books were destroyed in the name of preservation thanks to a false panic seeded by the Library of Congress and goosed along by microfilm boosters and such internal propaganda as a documentary called Slow Fires commissioned by the Council on Library Resources to convince the rank-and-file of paper's combustibility. "Not since the monk-harassments of sixteenth-century England has a government tolerated, indeed stimulated, the methodical eradication of so much primary-source material," Baker writes.

Turns out microfilming brought money -- grant money, fees for the master films. But it cost. By Baker's reckoning, the destruction of some 975,000 books by libraries nationwide ran a $39 million federal tab. (He does give the Boston Public Library high marks for preservation, commending it for holding onto "all its existing collections" and continuing "to lay away all the recent output of Boston and selected Massachusetts papers, wrapped in brown paper, right up through the present.")

If you feel protective about newspapers and books, you may find Double Fold a two-hankie affair. Also, at various points you may feel (as I did) like retiring a flight of glasses into the fireplace. But even if you don't give a toss about the fate of, say, the New York Herald Tribune or the Alaska Daily Empire, the story of how "this country has strip-mined a hundred and twenty years of its history" provides answers to questions you never knew you had. Such as, why can't a library patron in California or Boston look up a New York Times article from five years ago on microfilm? Why did the Library of Congress do work for the Defense Department? And why is the Library of Congress not bound by the Freedom of Information Act?

Baker has no problem with microfilming and digital scanning per se; he simply wants the originals to remain intact and then be put back on the shelves. But he values the sensual experience offered by old technology. As he puts it over the phone, "There's something about turning the pages that is like the elapsing of time. These huge papers, they fall slowly. They're actually displacing an enormous amount of air. . . . I think the pleasure of sinking down into a unit of time is fundamental to what all historians like doing."

To my mind, newspapers are books' yappier cousins. They invite discussion and debate and, arguably, more participation in public life. Journalism is a conversation. Isn't that what New York World executive editor Herbert Bayard Swope had in mind in the 1920s when he put all kind of voices together to create the "opposite-the-editorial" page? Swope's vision is part of an entire species of conversation. And that conversation inheres in paper. Double Fold reminds us that paper taps an über-party line buzzing across centuries.


Usually a book's publication is accompanied by the sound of one hand clapping. But the week Double Fold appeared, the literary Establishment turned out en masse. There was Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times' daily pages; Princeton historian Robert Darnton in the New York Review of Books; Elaine Sciolino in the Times' Arts & Ideas section; and David Gates and Dwight Garner in the New York Times Book Review.

Does Baker have any words for the critics? He does, in particular for Robert Darnton and his piece "The Great Book Massacre."

Darnton contends that Baker "stacks the evidence in his favor, not by distorting it but by rhetorical devices," one of them being his "tone of Innocence Abroad. How did I get into this mess? he asks the reader with false naiveté."

Baker pleads innocent. "The truth is I was -- am still -- really really shocked and disturbed that this happened. And I think that is an innocent reaction because I think that we all like libraries and want them to do the right thing on behalf of what's on their shelves. And we kind of expected that they were doing that. And so when we find out they had a big plan that involved cutting things up and getting a lot of microfilm to get digital images to be ready for when digital came and all that stuff, an innocent reaction to that is, `That's outrageous.'  "

He pauses.

"I'm not innocent any more. I interviewed a lot of people and went through all the back issues of Microform Review. No one after doing that is ever innocent again."

-- E.M.

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