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Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper Paperback – April 9, 2002
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“Got me, as he intended, hopping mad. Bless his obsessive-compulsive heart.”–David Gates, The New York Times Book Review
“There’s no mistaking the passion and intelligence he brings to his task or the fiery zest with which he relays his most damning anecdotes.” –Chicago Tribune
“Provocative . . . impassioned and compelling.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A magnificent crusade and he tells its story with a novelist’s flair. . . . This book is a thumping indictment of America’s great libraries. They have much to answer for” –Chicago Sun-Times
From the Inside Flap
The ostensible purpose of a library is to preserve the printed word. But for fifty years our country's libraries-including the Library of Congress-have been doing just the opposite, destroying hundreds of thousands of historic newspapers and replacing them with microfilm copies that are difficult to read, lack all the color and quality of the original paper and illustrations, and deteriorate with age.
With meticulous detective work and Baker's well-known explanatory power, Double Fold reveals a secret history of microfilm lobbyists, former CIA agents, and warehouses where priceless archives are destroyed with a machine called a guillotine. Baker argues passionately for preservation, even cashing in his own retirement account to save one important archive-all twenty tons of it. Written the brilliant narrative style that Nicholson Baker fans have come to expect, Double Fold is a persuasive and often devastating book that may turn out to be "The Jungle of the American library system.
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Many of the largest institutions in the US no longer have their paper copies of city and national newspapers, because most people got caught up in the microfilm technology craze. Nicholas Baker explains the slippery slope that led to the loss of a lot of cultural resources. His book is well researched but very anti-library biased. In 2000, Baker formed a business to buy old newspapers when he learned that the British Library was planning on dumping it's American collections. He scrambled together as much money as he could, got some grants, and bought 10 tons worth of US bound newspapers when they went up for auction. He didn't expect to become a newspaper librarian, but he has clearly become one, simply because no one else (in his opinion) was willing to step up.
While it's true that much microfilmed newspaper and books were unjustly labeled "brittle" and microfilmed via destructive means, not everything done by libraries during the microfilm craze was bad. I don't think there was a national conspiracy to throw stuff out. Baker made it seem like the CIA, NASA and librarians were working together to shrink collections any way possible. Just because Baker loves newspapers so much doesn't mean he can tear national and international libraries apart for not retaining their vast collections. They have priorities, the British Library was not mandated to hold on to huge runs of American newspapers. They might have tried to de-accession them in a better manner, but that was their choice. Personally I prefer paper records over microfilm, but I understand why they microfilmed as much as they did. It was the best technology available for digitization. In short, parts of the book were informative, but the constant jabs taken at librarians and librarianship were too much. The book is one man's slanted opinion against the library field.
I found it a *very* illuminating read and it made some really excellent points about how useful it is to carry projects without a clear sense of goal and direction. I thought his concerns about the privatisation of historical archive are very valid. I couldn't help but share his concerns about destruction in order to preserve. Moreover, the book is remarkably readable and occasionally very entertaining (the virgin mummy section, for example).
I'll be giving this one away as a Christmas gift to more than a few poeple on my gift list.
Baker's indictment reveals the extent of the loss, the foolish assumptions that led to it, and the military (!) bureaucrats who led the campaign. It is a terribly sad story but one that must be told and learned from if we are to avoid further losses. If you know a librarian, buy them a copy of the book, too (I can't imagine many libraries will put this book on the shelves!).
My only quibble with the book, and it's a small one, is that Baker has missed two important points:
1 - the microfilm companies are holding our nation's history hostage; by charging hundreds of thousands of dollars for a run of one newspaper on microfilm they are effectively keeping it out of the hands of libraries and, thus, researchers. If one of the reasons for the mass switch to microfilm was to cut costs, why didn't the libraries dictate terms to the microfilm companies when they started cutting up those precious bound volumes? Many libraries can't even afford to stock the microfilm of their hometown papers!
2 - because microfilm is so expensive, the stated problem of accessibility was not solved. One reason to photograph everything was so that researchers could have improved access to materials. In fact, the opposite has happened. Few libraries own microfilm, and those that do are unwilling to do inter-library loans. Thus, the researcher has to travel to the libraries to do their research or hire local researchers (a cottage industry these days).
No matter - Baker's passionate indictment hits plenty of high points; more than enough to convert most anyone (except perhaps the librarians who were duped for so long that they can't conceive of changing their positions).
I also salute Nicholson Baker for putting his money where his mouth is. His purchase of a good portion of the British Library's American newspaper archives (yes, even in 2000 the libraries are still gleefully disposing of paper) is excellent news. I only wish I'd known about the sale at the time - I would have gladly participated. However, the libraries know darn well that their actions are a public relations nightmare, so they keep these mass disposals very quiet.
Buy this book! Loan it to friends! Get the word out!