Since the 1950s, our country's greatest libraries have, as a matter of common practice, dismantled their collections of original bound newspapers and so-called brittle books, replacing them with microfilmed copies. The marketing of the brittle-paper crisis and the real motives behind it are the subject of this passionately argued book, in which Nicholson Barker pleads the case for saving our recorded heritage in its original form while telling the story of how and why our greatest research libraries betrayed the public trust by auctioning off or pulping irreplaceable collections. The players include the Library of Congress, the CIA, NASA, microfilm lobbyists, newspaper dealers, and a colorful array of librarians and digital futurists, as well as Baker himself - who eventually discovers that the only way to save one important newspaper is to buy it. Double Fold is an intense, brilliantly worded narrative that is sure to provoke discussion and controversy.
- National Book Critics Circle Awards
All writers of course love the printed word, but few are those willing to start foundations in order to preserve it. Not only has noted novelist Baker (The Mezzanine; Vox; etc.) done so, he's also written a startling expos of an ugly conspiracy perpetuated by the very people entrusted to preserve our history librarians. Baker started the American Newspaper Repository in 1999, when he discovered that the only existing copies of several major U.S. newspapers were going to be auctioned off by the British Library. Not only were U.S. libraries not interested, it turned out that they'd tossed their own copies years before. Why Baker uncovered an Orwellian universe in our midst in which preservation equals destruction, and millions of tax dollars have funded and continue to fund the destruction of irreplaceable books, newspapers and other print media. The instruments of that destruction microfilm, microfiche, image readers and toxic chemicals are less to blame than the cadre of former CIA and military operatives at the Library of Congress in the 1950s who refused to acknowledge that those technologies were, in fact, inferior to preserving and storing the originals. They were more concerned with ways to (in the words of one) "extract profit and usefulness from" old books while at the same time "prevent [them] from clogging the channels of the present." Baker details these events in one horrifying chapter after another, and he doesn't mince words. One can only gasp in outraged disbelief as he describes the men and women who, while supposedly serving as responsible custodians of our history, have chosen instead to decimate it. (on-sale Apr. 10) Forecast: The genesis of this book, an article in the New Yorker, generated quite a fuss, and this book is bound to receive attention in the print media. The subject and the passion with which the case is made guarantee healthy sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 08, 2002
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Excerpt from Double Fold by Nicholson Baker
In 1993, I decided to write some essays on trifling topics -- movie projectors, fingernail clippers, punctuation, and the history of the word "lumber." Deborah Garrison, then an editor at The New Yorker, called to ask if I wanted to review a soon-to-be published history of the world. Perhaps I should have written the review; instead, I suggested a brief, cheerful piece about the appeal of card catalogs. I began talking to librarians around the country, and I found out that card catalogs were being thrown out everywhere. I grew less cheerful, and the essay grew longer.
When it was published in 1994, I became known in the library world as a critic (and, to some, as a crank and a Luddite), and as a result, librarians at the San Francisco Public Library thought of me two years later when they wanted to tell someone what had happened in their institution: administrators had sent a few hundred thousand books to a landfill after they discovered that a new library building was too small to hold them. I gave a speech on this subject in the auditorium of the new building, and I published an article about it in The New Yorker. There was a local fuss, the head of the library eventually lost his job (over deficits, not book dumping), and I found myself described as a "library activist."
In the midst of the controversy, a man named Blackbeard told a reporter that he had a story for me. He wouldn't reveal any details to the reporter (who was Nina Siegal, of the San Francisco Bay Guardian); I was supposed to call him. I didn't make the call right away, though, because the squabble over the San Francisco Public Library was sufficiently distracting, and because my family and I were packing to spend a year in England. Some weeks later, going through some papers, I found the name, Bill Blackbeard, and his number, which I dialed. Blackbeard had a formal, slightly breathless way of talking; he was obviously intelligent, perhaps a little Ancient Marinerian in the way that lifelong collectors can be. He had edited collections of comic strips (early Popeye, Terry and the Pirates, Krazy Kat), and he ran something called the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art -- a one-man curatorship, apparently -- which owned, he said, a very large number of ex-library newspaper volumes, including one-of-a-kind runs of the great early Hearst papers. Some of what Blackbeard told me I couldn't quite comprehend: that the Library of Congress, the purported library of last resort, had replaced most of its enormous collection of late-nineteenth-and twentieth-century newspapers with microfilm, and that research libraries were relying on what he called "fraudulent" scientific studies when they justified the discarding of books and newspapers on the basis of diagnosed states of acidity and embrittlement. I said that it all sounded extremely interesting and that maybe he should write about it himself; I thanked him and hung up. I was tired of finding fault with libraries; in theory, I loved libraries.
Almost two years later, I thought of Blackbeard