Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: A Critical Analysis

 This critical response to Double Fold was written for IST 654, Preservation Management in Libraries and Archives, as part of my MSIS program at UAlbany.  It is also available in PDF  in the Portfolio section of this site.

See images of archival newspapers, featuring color illustration, at Nicholson Baker’s site, American Newspaper Repository.

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“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel” (1941)

          Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, published in 2001, argues that libraries have neglected to properly preserve original printed materials.  He calls for the preservation of printed library materials in their original format—that is, the preservation of paper in an enthusiastically digital age.  It is without a doubt a meticulously researched and passionately argued work of nonfiction in the legacy of such zealous defenders of print as G. Thomas Tanselle.  I consider Double Fold a valuable, historical exploration of the development of destructive practices in American and foreign libraries over the past several decades and an important call to action to reconsider the effects of destruction in the name of preservation.  Unfortunately, there are flaws and gaps in Baker’s argument—a refrain of “Leave the books alone”—which too often disregards the practical realities of library and archival practice, in which preservation of original artifacts is but one of many competing priorities (135). Furthermore, I think that the very vehemence of Baker’s argument could give many readers cause to discount him as a print sentimentalist, or worse, a hysteric.  I will attempt to evaluate this book as objectively and critically as possible, noting the weaknesses which undermine the effectiveness of Baker’s message.  I think that by sorting through this text, thick with anecdotes, facts and colorful exaggerations, and by weighing the evidence objectively and engaging in ongoing debate, we can eventually arrive at a realistic, improved vision for the future of library preservation.

While he has clearly researched his subject in remarkable depth, the fact remains that Nicholson Baker is not and never has been a librarian; he is a writer with an obvious passion for books, newspapers and history. I heartily agree with James M. O’Toole’s statement that “Double Fold doesn’t consider . . . real dilemmas which librarians and archivists, not to mention researchers, face every day” (387). The major flaws of the book stem from a general disregard for the practical concerns of librarianship and a refusal to acknowledge that even the behemoths of the library world, such as the Library of Congress and the British Library, are not immune to space and budgetary shortages. Baker also fails to differentiate between library and archival functions and tends to suggest that libraries operate as archives or even as museums. His arguments boil down to the simple suggestion that libraries should keep everything, building or leasing space as space is needed; he emphasizes the cost benefit of building additional storage space over microfilming. This seems so simple that one thinks that if it were in fact that simple, that’s the way it would be done. However, one must assume that librarians in general care about the materials they are charged to preserve and don’t take pleasure in destroying them willy-nilly. As O’Toole argues: “Librarians and archivists are not blind to the aesthetics of the materials in their care, but they cannot make large-scale decisions about the management of these collections on the basis of aesthetics alone. There are other competing demands, at least equal in importance to preserving neat stuff” (387). The fact is that libraries and archives cannot operate as warehouses and that there are established practices for collection management in libraries and appraisal in archives for good reason. Paul Conway expresses a similar sentiment: “archivists long ago recognized that their fundamental professional skill is their ability to assess the archival values of large volumes of records and manuscripts and to select the small portion with enduring value” (221-2). Information professionals today are tasked with dealing with an ever-growing abundance of material and must make difficult decisions regarding which materials to maintain permanently.

It was perhaps unwise of Baker to give librarians so little credit throughout the work. In response to a Harvard reference librarian’s statement that newspapers, “just don’t keep,” Baker writes: “They don’t keep, kiddo, if you don’t keep them” (18). Not only does he oversimplify the issue, but he is condescending as well. Whether subtly or blatantly, he accuses librarians of greed, callousness, ignorance, incompetence and dishonesty, describing librarians as a “grotesquely inept” group who “have lied shamelessly about the extent of paper’s fragility” (Baker 36, 41). The double-fold test from which the text takes its name, and by which major institutions have made decisions regarding the fate of brittle books, is dismissed and degraded by Baker as “utter horseshit and craziness” (157). I fear that this attitude is not the most effective way to win over a world of librarians to his cause. If the library preservation culture is going to change, it will be the librarians who change it. It is clear from Baker’s narrative that librarians have made mistakes; his nasty commentary on their character doesn’t add strength to his argument. If Baker truly wants to bring about positive change, I think he would do better to make more of an effort to forge partnerships with librarians and understand why they do what they do—the broad context of competing institutional priorities that play into preservation decisions.

Rather than finding a middle ground, Baker reacts in an extreme way, essentially calling for the indefinite preservation of all printed materials in their original form. Baker’s writing suggests a preoccupation with the marching beat of time, the text inflected with a tragic awareness of the inevitable destruction of all things. While I’m not unsympathetic to this feeling, I found myself irritated by certain of his descriptions, laced with sensory details that seem designed to provoke an emotional response: “You can hear the binding strings pop softly as the blade passes down the inner gutter of the volume” (Baker 12). The quietly tragic tone of his prose occasionally crosses into melodrama, tending to revel in the violent suggestiveness of certain terminology: the historical record is “disfigured”, unbound books are “mutilated”, and the device used to do the unbinding is called a “guillotine” (136, 20, 19). One can imagine Baker’s vision of the unjustly accused volumes being marched to the guillotine as a crowd of merciless, bloodthirsty librarians cheer, “off with their spines!” I am inclined to forgive him these colorful moments because it’s hard to fault someone who cares so deeply about the preservation of the human record, and after all, the book probably benefits from a level of provocativeness—library preservation is hardly a sexy topic, not likely to garner much interest with the general public, and Baker has managed to produce a bestseller. But I think other readers will not be so forgiving, and will be left with the impression of Baker as more a library hysteric than a library activist.

Throughout this text, I struggled to find the right balance in Baker’s message. While he makes a strong case that preservation decisions have not always been given the appropriate level of scrutiny, his solution strikes me as equally problematic. He would also do well to acknowledge that even the Library of Congress can’t be expected to keep everything they acquire forever. No institution has the capacity to grow infinitely. I also think it’s clear that Baker’s vision for library preservation management can and should only apply to a select class of libraries: those which handle materials of artifactual value. I think it would be helpful if Baker made the distinction between appropriate practices in major research libraries and archives versus the public library found in every small town in America. Collection management is a necessary aspect of administering a library, and it is a subject that Baker makes little effort to address realistically in Double Fold. Public libraries, whose primary mission is to make materials available to the public, must deal with constant turnover to accommodate several copies of the newest, most popular books and media and must minimize space taken up by books that are rarely or never checked out. Public libraries also must lend books out of the library, which inevitably results in a large amount of destruction.

Finally, I wish to specifically address some of Baker’s arguments regarding preservation microfilming and digitization initiatives. O’Toole points out that Baker is simply wrong in his assertion that microfilm has ended historians’ use of newspapers, and also fails to realize that historians no longer rely on newspapers as heavily as they once did: “historians have come to rely on frankly more informative sources, such as census and demographic data” for research (388). Additionally, there is a total lack of acknowledgement of the revolutionary improvement in access to rare and archival materials brought about by the new technologies Baker so rails against. Reformatting to microfilm was a start, because microfilm can be shared through interlibrary loan. Digitization, however, has completely changed the game; digital collections made available on the Internet are immediately accessible to anyone anywhere in the world, including people who would never have been able to travel to visit the material in its printed form. Librarians should be commended for recognizing the importance of making available valuable historical materials for any person with access to a computer. I would argue that the value of this increased accessibility is so monumental as to merit the costs associated with digitization. As long as the digital media is maintained, the files could theoretically exist in a usable format indefinitely, whereas paper has an admittedly long natural lifespan, but a limited lifespan nevertheless. Finally, there are now cameras that can digitize materials without unbinding them or damaging them unduly. I believe the ideal strategy, and the very strategy that many institutions already employ, would consist of selective microfilming and digitization combined with retention of as many of the original printed materials as is reasonably possible.

Despite all this, Baker’s argument remains inherently persuasive. The fact is that at some moments, Baker’s zealousness almost begins to seem warranted in light of the seemingly casual attitudes of some who have been responsible for the destruction of so many original printed materials. Early in the text, Baker visits the warehouse home of Historic Newspaper Archives, Inc., which sells original newspapers as keepsakes. The manager, Hy Gordon, purportedly responds to Baker’s concern for these materials with the statement: “Don’t be distressed . . . There are a lot of things more important in life” (Baker 20). Certainly no one is arguing that the destruction of newspapers is a crisis on par with world hunger, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthy cause in need of advocates. Of course, it’s not really fair to direct these sentiments at the Hy Gordons of the world, who are simply in business to sell a product—the real source of the problem is the libraries that give up care of newspapers to such businesses. Yet the general apathetic attitude toward printed materials is noteworthy. I think that in order for preservation of original materials to be allocated higher priority and greater resources, there needs to be greater valuation of these materials, not only by librarians, but society at large. It’s a significant problem for preservation if, as a culture, we do not value these relics as artifacts of our shared past, each printed work a piece of the human record.

I must emphasize that moderated and placed in the appropriate context, I believe there is significance to Baker’s arguments. Double Fold presents striking examples of libraries which have unmistakably erred. Baker convincingly argues, through personal anecdotes describing bound files of newspapers, that the fragility of newsprint has likely been widely exaggerated, although it seems this exaggeration is not quite the conspiracy that Baker seems to imagine. I do think the profession could benefit from additional scientific studies regarding the actual lifespan of paper, including acid paper and delicate newsprint. Baker’s point about high contrast black and white microfilm being an inadequate substitute for many printed works, particularly photographs and color illustrations, is dead-on. Librarians and archivists must ensure that digital surrogates accurately reproduce the content of the original material, and must realize that in some cases, the printed material has intrinsic artifactual value that makes a digital substitute simply inadequate; as Lynn C. Westney argues: “Digital surrogates do not serve as satisfactory substitutes for those engaged in original scholarship. Indeed, digitization provides additional access points to print collections and enhances our print collections. It does not replace them” (10). I believe this is not always the case, but is true of many collections. Baker’s point about the “befuddling divergence” between conservation and preservation is also apt—why some works are treated with the best conservation treatments available, while others are microfilmed and pulped is part of a decision-making process by library and archival staff which could benefit from further scrutiny (107). I believe that it is important for librarians in general to have increased awareness of the artifactual value inherent to original printed materials, because, as Double Fold indicates, we have certainly destroyed some things that we ought to have treasured.

On one level, Double Fold is rooted in a Library of Babel fantasy, an extravagant vision of infinite warehouses holding original copies of every work ever printed. While there is much value to the academic footwork Baker has done in Double Fold to demonstrate exactly what we stand to lose when librarians take a careless approach to preservation, I can’t help but wonder what a different book this would have been if, rather than cataloging libraries’ every past misstep, Baker had analyzed the practical limitations to print media preservation and proposed realistic solutions, working to bridge the gap between the academic ideal and the practical reality. Despite its flaws, Double Fold is a valuable contribution to a lively debate about best practices for library and archival preservation—one that is essential if we wish to adequately preserve our past for the benefit of our future.

 

Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

Conway, Paul. “Archival Preservation Practice in a Nationwide Context.” American Archivist 53 (Spring 1990):

204-22. JSTOR Arts & Sciences VI. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

O’Toole, James M. “Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate: Double Fold and the Assault on Libraries.” American 

Archivist 64 (Fall/Winter 2001): 385-93. JSTOR Arts & Sciences VI. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Westney, Lynn C. “Intrinsic Value and the Permanent Record: the Preservation Conundrum.” OCLC Systems & 

Services 23.1 (2007): 5-12. Academic Search Alumni Edition. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

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