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DOUBLE FOLD by Nicholson Baker Kirkus Star


Libraries and the Assault on Paper

by Nicholson Baker

Pub Date: April 13th, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-50444-3
Publisher: Random House

In a passionate cri de coeur sure to raise controversy and alarm, novelist Baker (The Everlasting Story of Nory, 1998, etc.) accuses America’s librarians of betraying the public trust as they rush to microfilm and digitize.

Since the 1950s, writes Baker, American libraries have been microfilming newspapers and discarding the originals because, they claimed, paper manufactured since 1850 from wood pulp (more acidic than its rag-based predecessor) was rapidly crumbling to dust and would soon be unreadable. “Absolute nonsense,” retorts Baker, quoting a paper conservation scholar who claims that, when properly stored, old newspapers and books do not disintegrate. The real agenda of the “reformatters”—and among Baker’s principle villains are such respected library names as Fremont Rider, Verner Clapp, Peter Sparks, and Patricia Battin—is to save shelf space and cut costs. That’s why they also manufactured a “brittle books” crisis (based largely on the inappropriate double-fold test that gives this work its title) to convince Congress and the public that old books also should be filmed or computer-scanned and thrown away. In a blistering point-by-point rebuttal, Baker points out that microfilming costs more in the long term than building additional storage facilities; that library users loathe microfilm, which is hard to read at best and undecipherable at worst; that quality control has been so sketchy that whole months are missing from newspaper runs supposedly filmed in their entirety; and that it's inexcusable to destroy books’ bindings in order to film them when spring-balanced book cradles have been available since the 1930s. Digital storage is also ridiculously expensive, and the image comes nowhere near matching the paper original. Due to the author’s eagerness to dismember every justification offered by his opponents, the narrative has a relentless comprehensiveness that may weary even the most sympathetic reader. It’s leavened by acid humor: Baker remarks of one librarian’s metaphor comparing microfilming to chemotherapy, “radiation therapy . . . has a reasonable chance of keeping a patient alive [while] your typical late-eighties preservation-reformatter disposed of the patient after a last afternoon on the X-ray table.”

If even half of what Baker alleges is true, some of America's most honored librarians have a lot of explaining to do.