Double Fold

By Nicholson Baker

The “Death of the Book” has been one of the most talked about stories in both literary and technology circles over the past few years. What the expression mainly refers to is the potential for the e-book to circumvent traditional publishing, and for libraries to be replaced by virtual information centers on the Internet.

Before the Death of the Book, however, there was the War Against Paper. This was the decades-long campaign by techno-happy librarians to replace whole collections, especially of old newspapers, with tidy cabinets full of microfilm.

The rationale for this divestiture was two-fold. First of all, paper was taking up too much room. Where were major reference libraries going to find the shelf-space to store the thousands of new volumes they acquire every year? The second reason was that the books themselves were falling apart, literally crumbling to dust as they sat in the stacks like so many moldering paper bricks. Wasn’t it a moral duty to save these precious texts by copying them into microform, even if, in the process, such duplication typically resulted in the destruction of the originals?

Maybe not. Novelist Nicholson Baker has become one of the leading advocates for preserving our paper heritage. In Double Fold he challenges many of the assumptions underlying the efforts of those who destroy to conserve.

In the first place, Baker considers the claim that libraries are turning to dust to be nothing more than scare propaganda. In fact, he says, there is little scientific evidence on the effects of aging on paper’s durability. The “double fold” of the title, for example, refers to a popular test for determining whether a book has become too brittle to be worth saving. But the test, which involves folding a corner of a page back and forth until it breaks, has little practical relation to how books are actually used. And despite the warnings of the micromaniacs, very few books have ever “turned to dust.”

To the argument that microforms save libraries space and money Baker responds that building extra warehouses to store old books and newspapers is actually more cost-effective than subscribing to expensive microfilm services.

And finally there is the issue of how history is best preserved. If microfilm was a perfect duplicate of an original source, then more might be said in its defense. Unfortunately, the copies being produced are inferior in quality and often incomplete. Books, Baker argues, are physical artifacts just as much as they are bowls of ideas. “They are things and utterances both.” Libraries, being collections of physical artifacts, must therefore “aspire to the condition of museums” and treat all of their books as the treasures that they are.

Baker admits that Double Fold is not an impartial piece of reporting. He is personally active in the campaign to save old newspapers from being destroyed, and has established a non-profit organization to that end.

But in his efforts to preserve the past, Baker has clearly set himself in opposition to the spirit of his age. High or low, foreign or domestic, good or bad – today’s culture is supposed to be disposable. This isn’t the result of changes in technology; it’s just that permanence is bad for the economy.

The spoliation of the libraries is, as Baker documents, an economic boon. Huge government grants are awarded to help libraries turn valuable old documents into inferior microform. Microform services then make money out of selling their inferior products back to the libraries. The libraries improve their bottom line by clearing space and selling their collections at auction to commercial ventures that mine them for novelty items.

Preserving old books is a noble goal, but does it pay?

Review first published April 7, 2001.


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