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What Would Dewey Say?

DOUBLE FOLD Libraries and the Assault on Paper; By Nicholson Baker; Random House: 372 pp., $25.95

LIBRARIES IN THE ANCIENT WORLD; By Lionel Casson; Yale University Press: 192 pp., $22.95

April 22, 2001|JOHN MAXWELL HAMILTON | John Maxwell Hamilton is the author of, most recently, "Casanova Was a Book Lover: And Other Naked Truths and Provocative Curiosities About the Writing, Selling, and Reading of Books." He is dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University

Pity the librarians.

They shoulder the heroic task of collecting and saving the sum of human knowledge, a job every bit as important to our national security as a strong military. Libraries are cultural treasure chests, the seed stock for open, vigorous public policy debate in our democracy, and information banks that provide ideas that lead to economic advances and entrepreneurship.

Yet, instead of being depicted as valiant sentinels on the front lines of our national defense, librarians suffer from endless depictions as meek, fussy clerks.

And now, at the hands of Nicholson Baker, librarians come in for much harsher treatment-and for just the opposite reason. The problem, he argues, is not that librarians are always straightening the books on the shelf. It is that they are recklessly throwing out, selling, giving away and destroying books.

The distressing story Baker tells in "Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper" illuminates the dark side of our Information Age. Books, magazines, newspapers and electronic databases are piling up in libraries. Librarians have responded by looking for ways to make easier-to-store copies so they can throw out the bulky originals. They have concentrated these intentions on microfilming publications whose paper is brittle or likely to become brittle. This planned destruction is the opposite of librarians' traditional zeal for collecting the original, and it makes Baker angry. "This isn't an impartial piece of reporting," Baker says at the beginning of his polemical book.

Double fold-bending the corner of a book page back and forth-refers to a test that librarians use to determine brittleness. Baker will have none of it. Brittle pages can still be read, he points out; a better test is one that determines if a reader can turn the pages without their crumbling.

Embrittlement originated in mass literacy. Needing a cheap source of paper to serve their mass audiences, mid-19th century publishers began the practice of using wood pulp. Highly acidic, pulp paper turns brown and brittle in a few decades, or even more quickly if it is left in the open air. Although embrittlement is a worry, Baker acknowledges, librarians have overreacted. No reliable scientific studies have determined how long brittle paper will last. In an effort to get funds for microfilm, librarians have egregiously overstated the embrittlement problem so that it is now common for them to talk about books turning to dust, something that simply does not happen. "Librarians have lied shamelessly about the extent of paper's fragility," Baker charges, "and they continue to lie about it."

Just how usable are embrittled newspapers? The Historic Newspaper Archives Inc. buys library-discarded newspaper collections, guts the bound volumes and sells individual copies of newspapers to people who want gifts to commemorate someone's birthday. Baker says the archives "owns what is now probably the largest 'collection' of post-1880 U.S. papers anywhere in the country, or in the world, for that matter."

Federal financing for microfilm "preservation" has led libraries in the United States to jettison nearly a million books, many of them rare, according to Baker's calculations: "It's as if the National Park Service felled vast wild tracts of pointed firs and replaced them with plastic Christmas trees." In grasping the quick fix of microfilming and discarding, librarians have introduced new problems. Microfilm copies do not approximate the clarity of the originals, especially vexing when illustrations are involved. Nor is microfilm itself indestructible. Acid in acetate-based microfilm can "shrink, buckle, bubble, or stick together in a solid illegible lump."

Some argue that digital reproduction will turn out better. But, Baker says, high-quality digital facsimiles on compact discs can never be created "unless we decide right now to do a much better job of holding on to the originals." And that is not all. Today's microfilm or compact disc may become tomorrow's vinyl phonographic record. In that case, we will be unable to buy or service the equipment to read reformatted materials.

The author of "The Everlasting Story of Nory," 'The Size of Thoughts," 'Vox" and other books, Baker is a diligent, thorough reporter with an eye for the quirky, all very much in the mode of the New Yorker, where he is a staff writer. Among the colorful personalities who appear in the book is 19th century geologist Isaiah Deck, who had the brainstorm of unearthing Egyptian mummies and using their linen wrappings to make better paper. He also argued that mummy remains could be used to make soap. Other mad library scientists-some of them with ties to the CIA-experimented with pneumatic page-turners, holographic storage, lamination (which also causes embrittlement) and diethyl-zinc. The latter, it was hoped, could be used to de-acidify old paper. Apart from its other shortcomings, the equipment had the unfortunate side effect of exploding.

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