The bonfire of books

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper By Nicholson Baker Random House 370 pp., $25.95

Libraries, most of us assume, are safe havens for the printed word. Even if we are sometimes disappointed by the limited collections of our local branch, it is reassuring to think that in our national and university libraries, vast collections of books, newspapers, and prints are reposing safely. But, as novelist Nicholson Baker discovered, some of the world's greatest libraries - such as the British Library and the Library of Congress - have been destroying their collections of bound newspapers and brittle books in the process of "preserving" them on microfilm.

"Double Fold," the title of Baker's well-researched and well-written book, refers to the test used by librarians to determine whether a page is "dangerously" brittle: If, on folding it first one way then the other, it breaks, the volume from which it comes may be a candidate for preservation/destruction.

In the process of microfilming bound volumes, books are often destroyed, sometimes by chopping off their bindings to make it easier to microfilm the flat pages. Moreover, in the interest of freeing up shelf space, librarians often discard the originals altogether after they've been microfilmed.

What is so wrong with this? First, as Baker points out, many of the microfilmed copies are sadly inadequate versions of their originals. Richly illustrated old newspapers with gorgeously printed graphics become on microfilm a monochrome shadow of their former selves. The overall quality of the printing is often blurry. And, as anyone who's scrolled through miles of microfilm knows, it can be a dizzying experience.

As Baker observes, one of the pleasures of reading through bound volumes of old newspapers is seeing the overall arrangement of each page - just as the paper's original readers did. Moreover, the microfilm record is often incomplete, and since libraries have thrown out the originals, the frustrated researcher will be unable to find missing articles and issues.

So what happens to the old newspapers? Some are bought up by dealers who package individual pages as novelty gifts. A vast number of volumes, finding no buyers, are simply pulped. Baker himself has taken to buying as many as he can afford and renting storage space to keep them safe.

Are libraries really running out of space? Are "brittle" books, printed in the late-19th and much of the 20th century on paper with high acid content, really in danger of disintegrating?

Baker argues that both the space crisis and the acid crisis have been grossly overstated by various "experts," whose pronouncements have been blindly accepted. Large amounts of money, including government grants, have been earmarked for "preservation," while the delicate art of book conservation - the painstaking repair of fragile tomes - has been slighted.

In addition to microfilm-mania, Baker describes the truly scary process of book de-acidification, employing large amounts of a chemical so volatile it bursts into flame on contact with air, and, even when it doesn't burn, still leaves books smelling too awful to read.

He also presents evidence that renting space for existing books is cheaper and safer than these procedures, and that "brittle" books may have a much longer shelf life than their critics have claimed. He suggests that "preservationists," having proselytized so assiduously to "save" books and journals by these dubious methods, have swayed the thinking of most librarians and set up a costly system that gobbles up still-viable volumes at an alarming rate. He quotes a former Library of Congress department head: "It's like having a sausage factory.... You've got to feed the beast."

If there is any hope of slaying this particular bureaucratic, paper-devouring dragon, a sea change in mentality is needed, and Baker's eye-opening (and page-turning) book may help alter the climate of opinion before it is too late.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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