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Nicholson Baker: Love Him or Dismiss Him

September 27, 1996

Why does anyone pay attention to Nicholson Baker and his misguided attacks on libraries? ("Talk about Throwing the Book at the San Francisco Library," Sept. 3.)

Many in the library community challenged him when he trashed libraries in the New Yorker. Now he's carried his campaign from intellectual circles to real attacks on real libraries, demanding that San Francisco Public Library resurrect its outdated and inaccurate card catalog and cease discarding old books.

He misunderstands the situation on several counts:

First is the question of the library's mission. In his New Yorker article, Baker asserts that "the function of a great library is to store obscure books." If that were the only role of great libraries, the work would be much easier. But they must operate in a world where publications proliferate at ever-rising prices, while library budgets are shrinking. Few institutions can afford to collect and stock vast numbers of books, just in case someone, sometime, somewhere might want them.

Prompted by rising costs and expanding opportunities, libraries have seized upon new technologies to do together what no single institution could accomplish alone. Cataloging costs were cut by adoption of standardized, computer-readable bibliographical data--the object of Baker's complaint. Initially, an online catalog could be consulted only in the library itself; then it became available to offices and dorms via campus networks. Now it exists as one of many national and international collections accessible through the Internet. In the ideal scenario of the future, any title anywhere will be readily in view; scanned into a computer, it can be transmitted across the country or globe with dispatch.

As to Baker's claim that the library is discarding the wrong books and should be giving them to charity, libraries are responsible for providing not just information, but accurate information. Libraries always purge outdated items like 1960s science books and extra copies of old fiction that nobody reads. Storing materials is expensive, and libraries make agreements with each other as to who will hold copies of which older materials. Giving outdated books to schools and nonprofit organizations is not a favor; depending on which books, it may be irresponsible.

Lastly is his complaint that the library accepted funds from private institutions. Has he not heard of public-private partnerships? Libraries, schools, universities and other public agencies might prefer to be fully funded by the government and thus free of any appearance of corporate ties. The sad truth is that the tax dollars just aren't there.

This is the real tragedy of Baker's attacks. He's demanding that libraries spend more of their scarce funds on maintaining duplicate systems and duplicate storage of unneeded materials, when the real issue is the need for more support for libraries.


Chair, Department of Library and Information Science



Plaudits to writer Nicholson Baker for throwing the book at the library. The special report by Michael Ybarra was of special interest to me as it should be to all librarians and specialists in the information field who must wield computers for better or worse.

There is no question that computers are here to stay but they must be manipulated by specialists in fields where they can deliver the goods with care and concern for the human factor. To begin with, you can't curl up with a good computer and I can well understand Baker's attachment to the old-fashioned card catalog which was created and manipulated by human hands.


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