Double Fold -- the Book that Shook the World of Librarians
The man whose name has become "mud" in the domain of librarians the world over is also a novelist, journalist, founder / head of a non-profit corporation known as "American Newspaper Repository" (ANR), and "library activist"; his real name is Nicholson Baker, and the book that brought so much attention to him, and to the practice of some libraries to destroy newspaper archives, is Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.
It all began in 1993 for Baker, as he explains in the Preface to his award-winning book, when he was writing a piece for The New Yorker, and, while interviewing librarians around the country, " ... found out that the card catalogs were being thrown out everywhere. I grew less cheerful, and the essay grew longer," he wrote (vii).
And then, after establishing his reputation as something of a "library critic" -- or, as he added, "a crank and a Luddite" -- he learned in 1996, that the San Francisco Public Library had "sent a few hundred thousand books to a landfill after they discovered that a new library building was too small to hold them."
That article by Baker also created a stir, and in fact the library head in San Francisco lost his job and Baker's reputation was now even more renowned: he said he had morphed into a full-fledged "library activist." He then started writing Double Fold, only to learn well into his manuscript that "one of the last remaining collections of American wood-pulp newspapers would be cut to pieces unless I started a non-profit corporation ... " and so he did. And that information is neatly tucked into the book.
He candidly admits in the Preface (x) that the book "isn't an impartial piece of reporting."
In Chapter 1 of his book, Baker rages about the decision of the British Museum's Library to auction off a huge volume of newspaper collections. He says they got rid of a "seventy-year run" of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World; and they auctioned off 1,300 volumes of the Chicago Tribune (1888 to 1958); along with those collections, the British Museum got rid of "an enormous set of the San Francisco Chronicle" plus "a monster accumulation of what one could argue is the best newspaper in U.S. history, the New York Herald-Tribune," along with invaluable collections of the Tribune (Horace Greeley's anti-slavery newspaper) and the Herald (a pro-slavery newspaper put out by James Gordon Bennett) (4).
In addition, The New York Times from 1915 through 1958 was auctioned off as well by the museum's library administrators. What bothers Baker a lot, beyond the seemingly cavalier way in which a prestigious institution like the British Museum handled priceless collections of the best newspapers in the world -- papers which basically chronicled, day after day, the world's events for history -- was the fact that these papers were well preserved.
They were well preserved because they used "wood-pulp" newsprint, which ages very well, as long as it's not left out in the sunlight, or beside a very hot furnace or steam pipe, he writes. "Contrary to incessant library propaganda," he explains, newspapers he examined from the "turn-of-the-century" (that is, 1900) looked and felt "like they had peeled off a Hoe cylinder press day before yesterday" (5).
He rails at librarians who were all to eager to use microfilm ("miniature plastic reproductions" of newspapers): "Many librarians ... have managed to convince themselves, and us, that if a newspaper was printed after 1870 or so, it will inevitably self-destruct or 'turn to dust' any minute ... "
Even microfilm companies "fed the fear of impermanence with confident mis-predictions," he continued. He quotes from an executive at Kodak, Charles Z. Case, who wrote (in 1936) that "a newspaper file has a life of form 5 to 40 years, depending on the quality of the paper, the conditions of storage, and the degree of use."
"Had Case's forecast held true, the volume of the Chicago Tribune for July 1911 that lies open before me as I type ... would have expired at least half a century ago," he quipped on page 6.
Meantime, Baker (10) writes about the demise of a multitude of foreign newspaper collections by the British Museum Library, which by law, was obliged to keep British newspaper collections, but no such provision existed for foreign papers. Because there was not enough storage space for the collections of American and European papers that did not have takers, they were "pulped" -- in other words, destroyed, and made into recycled paper for future publications.
"One of the finest libraries in the world was unable or unwilling to buy, build, retrofit, or lease a ten-thousand-square-foot warehouse anywhere in England that could hold their unique international collection," he explained. He bemoaned the fact (13), however, that the decision of the British Library to auction off, then so callously dump entire "unwanted" collections of some of the finest newspapers in the world would not have mattered if American libraries "had been doing the job we paid them to do." That is, to keep and preserve collections of newspapers, the only daily journalistic coverage of the world that the average person can pick up for a small cost and read, and become informed.
If librarians had been keeping and filing the newspaper, Baker continues, "rather than stacking them in all the wrong places and finally selling them to book-breakers or dumping in the trash outright ... " in fact, his book wouldn't have been necessary.
He's angry at the Library of Congress ("quick to clear its shelves of the New York World and most of the Chicago Tribune and replace them with ... microfilm ... " And he's furious at "a Midwestern historical society" where a stack "twelve feet high and twenty feet wide" were "chain-sawed in half and fed into the steam engine that powered a vintage sawmill exhibit." And he is very upset with "all the major newspaper repositories -- the Center for Research Libraries in Chicago ... And the State Historical Society of Wisconsin ... [who have] long since bet the farm on film and given away, sold, or thrown out most of their original volumes published after 1880 or so."
What others are saying about Baker's book, and his facts.
Libraries & Culture article on angry librarians: First it would be instructive to see what librarians are saying about Baker's book: a hefty volley of protest against his writing and his assertions was launched in the journal, Libraries & Culture (Pavelka, 2002), in the form of a review.
Karen L. Pavelka writes, in the first paragraph of her review, that Baker's "understanding" of libraries and library conservators "is limited and flawed." She writes that it is "regrettable" that he chose to work "in opposition to rather than in cooperation with" the people whom she asserts have "the greatest sympathy and understanding" of the problem of dumping volumes of published newspapers.
Pavelka seems a little defensive when she notes that of his 257 notes and 19 pages of references were likely "referenced in a library, perhaps with the assistance of a librarian," a fact that has no bearing on the assertions Baker makes; and further she regrets that "Baker chooses to vilify the very profession" that makes information available. She is upset that he does "more harm that good for the cause he espouses," and she goes into great detail to precisely describe the various and sundry types of paper that newspapers are printed on. Some of the older editions, dating back to the turn of the 20th Century, she explains, were printed on paper that is better than the recycled newsprint used today, and hence, some older papers are indeed still intact; but he failed to point that out, and because librarians "have a more global understanding [than he does] of what constitutes information," he therefore is portrayed by Pavelka as a charlatan who has a following and is grandstanding for his own edification and publicity.
Baker's idea of simply storing newspapers in a large warehouse is "simplistic" and "prejudiced," she writes.
Library Journal on Duke University's welcome to Baker's collection: The librarian community may be upset with Baker, but Duke University is welcoming his quest to preserve newspaper collections with open arms. An article in the Library Journal (Albanese, 2004) has reported that Duke University will now house Baker's "nearly 5,000 volumes" of 19th and 20th Century newspapers. Baker has been storing these volumes in an "old New Hampshire mill," allowing scholars and researchers to come and dig through the collection by appointment.
Duke's joining with Baker's American Newspaper Repository is the "best possible thing that could happen to a singular collection," he told a dinner meeting of the Friends of the Duke University Libraries.
Information Today article sides with Baker's charges: " ... Has the time come now to view [Baker's] book as a wake-up call for…