Death of paper? -- libraries face the modern age

April 15, 2001|By Sandy Levy | By Sandy Levy,Sun Staff

"Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper," by Nicholson Baker. Random House. 370 pages. $25.95.

Nicholson Baker is mad at hell at librarians, and he's not going to take it anymore. According to Baker, public and academic libraries have betrayed their public trust by exchanging priceless collections of books and old newspapers for microfilm, merely to save space. Baker argues that this was a devil's bargain, the result of a bill of goods sold to institutional libraries over the past half century by individuals interested only in promoting microfilm.

Baker first took on librarydom in a pair of articles in the New Yorker, the first blasting the destruction of card catalogs, and the second the disposal of original copies of old newspapers. In this important and provocative book, he has the space to let librarians -- a usually ignored segment of the working population -- really have it.

Baker convinced me that if stored properly and rarely used, newsprint can stand the test of time, and I agree that microfilm is a poor substitute visually for the original print source. The problem with Baker's critique is that it overstates the advantages of the original medium -- principally ease of reading and the intangible pleasure that comes from dealing with any original document -- and greatly minimizes the disadvantages.

The latter, which he largely glosses over, include very real limitations on available storage space. The reality of a modern library is that space is a finite resource. Imagine saving every newspaper delivered to your door (not to mention paying to have it bound), and you get some idea of how quickly newspaper storage becomes a problem. In The Baltimore Sun's case that would be 365 days of newspapers times 164 years!

Aging newspapers are also fragile, prone to disintegration, fire, floods, theft and coffee spills. Microfilm largely solves these problems, and has the additional advantage for the publisher who holds copyright of making distribution of the paper's accumulated archive, for profit and otherwise, much simpler. It is not surprising that most libraries willingly agreed to the trade.

Baker also criticizes the destruction of hard copies of books. His key point is that librarians exaggerated the brittleness of acidic books printed between mid-1800s and 1989 by falsely claiming that they were "turning to dust" to get millions in government funds to microfilm them and clear their shelves.

The book's title, "Double Fold," refers to the test libraries used to decide which books to film. If a page broke after being folded twice, it was considered "embrittled" and thus a candidate for microfilmed destruction. By one estimate, nearly a million perfectly sound books were "lost" in this way and replaced with microfilm copies.

Certainly any book lover finds the image of books having their spines hacked off during the microfilming process (known as "guillotining" them) disturbing. But libraries are not mere warehouses. The availability of information is a function of more than simply having a particular book or newspaper. It is a fundamental truth of library science that information without a way of accessing it is useless.

The irony is that in this electronic age when newspaper circulation is down and fewer people read anything in print, what a wonderful opportunity it is to put all of this on the Internet. What Baker wants is the best of all possible worlds, keep the print and go digital too. The next step for him is to work with librarians to find a way out of this space dilemma, and to use their skills to make sense of his lovely piles of newspapers so the rest of the world can enjoy them too.

Sandy Levy has been on The Sun's staff for seven years, three as director of library & information services. She holds a master's degree in library science.

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