Why are libraries destroying books? | Education
Modern civilisation really started to go wrong, Nicholson Baker reckons, when they replaced paper drinking straws with plastic ones: in his first novel, The Mezzanine, he dedicates a footnote of well over 1,000 words to this calamity. (“How could the straw engineers have made so elementary a mistake, designing a straw that weighed less than the sugar-water in which it was intended to stand?” he writes of the new straws, which floated. “Madness!”) Elsewhere, he spends pages ruminating about the meshing grooves of escalator steps, on putting on socks, on the miracle of perforation.
This – the loving preservation, like pressing flowers, of the finest textures of daily life – is his authorial trademark, so one imagines a certain amount of affectionate eye-rolling on the part of his editors at the New Yorker when he turned in an article on the rich pleasures of library card catalogues. Many British and American libraries, he discovered during his research, were destroying them in favour of electronic systems. He was appalled – but even as you saw his point, you had to wonder how much it really mattered in the scheme of things.
It was only after the piece had been published that his sources in the bookstacks let him know that he had inadvertently stumbled on a much bigger scandal. Never mind the card catalogues: for decades, he learned, some of the world’s most important libraries – not least the British Library and the Library of Congress in Washington – had been systematically destroying shelf after shelf of books and newspapers as they transferred their contents on to microfilm. This might seem an unpromising context for a tale of secretive plots, cult-like fervour and encyclopaedia-sized egos, but that is what Baker unearthed. Ever since the 1950s – convincing themselves that their brittle paper stocks were on the verge of “crumbling to dust” – a group of influential microfilm evangelists, as often as not backed with money from the microfilm industry, had led a campaign to “reformat” vast amounts of stock, often destroying the originals in the process, pulping them, or selling them off to dealers offering “newspapers from the day you were born” as birthday gifts.
Baker’s new book, Double Fold, which won the US National Book Critics’ Circle award last week and is published in the UK this month, is a microscopically researched tirade against the practice. But the author himself – neatly bearded and balding, precise and genial, a six-foot-four tower of corduroy-wearing donnishness – hardly seems like the campaigning sort. “I didn’t think when I started writing books 15 years ago that I was going to be a library-muckraker sort of person,” he says, scissored forwards on a hotel sofa a couple of Manhattan blocks from one of his book’s targets, the New York Public Library. “Most of the things are in good hands. The rainforests… there are whole non-profit groups for any number of things that I might get upset about. But I just didn’t feel anyone was taking the side of the brittle paper.”
The core of the book recounts Baker’s attempt, in 1999, to persuade the British Library not to junk more than 2,000 bound volumes of American newspapers – the last remaining copies in the world – including a complete run of the Chicago Tribune from 1888 to 1958 and hundreds of editions of Joseph Pulitzer’s ground-breaking colour broadsheet of the 1890s, the New York World. “They were extremely nice, extremely pleasant – they gave me tea,” he recalls, and what firmer proof could there be of an Englishman’s good faith? “Brian Lang [then director of the library] was so friendly that I was sure he was thinking, ‘Well, I didn’t know this, and I won’t allow it.’ If somebody had called him up to say he was about to destroy the last remaining first printing of Dante’s Inferno, I’m sure he would have flipped around.”
But the library said it needed the space, and, since it is not legally bound to retain hard copies of non-British publications, it ignored him. Undeterred, he joined the birthday-newspaper dealers at an auction for the discarded papers, and spent $26,000 (£18,200) of his retirement money on runs of the Tribune and the World. Now they are stored in Baker’s American Newspaper Repository – a converted mill in the isolated New Hampshire town of Rollinsford that he shares with the Humpty Dumpty Potato Chips company.
“Card catalogues – I understand that’s a kind of quirky thing,” Baker says. “But Pulitzer’s paper? We’re not talking about some oddball little province of knowledge here. We’re talking about the central diary of New York City… The people at the British Library who made the decision didn’t even look at them. But the guy who helped me offload them, the Humpty Dumpty potato-chip man – he said” – Baker’s voice falls to a whisper – “‘These are primary sources!’ He knew! He got it!”
The supposed brittleness of paper was one motive for what the microfilm crusaders called “destroying to preserve”, though Baker says they have “lied shamelessly” about how quickly it really turns to dust. Another was the desire to save space – partly based on the predictions of Fremont Rider, an eccentric college librarian and telepathy enthusiast of the 1950s, who was sure that library stocks would inevitably double every 16 years. (They haven’t done.) Above all, though, they seem to have been driven by a mad hunger for new gadgets coupled with a kind of epic anal-retentiveness – a desire to organise and package and schematise and get rid, once and for all, of the tattered edges and awkward bulks of actual books and newspapers.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, old things just looked bad to us,” Baker says. “Look at urban renewal: we wanted new stuff, and the same kind of fever hit at the same time in librarianship. It’s a certain way of thinking that is quintessentially American – it has to do with renewing… There are holes in the skyline of American literature, American culture – but it’s a skyline you can only see in the stacks.”
But microfilm hardly lived up to the wild claims of the 1950s futurists who envisioned a time when it would be as ubiquitous as toothbrushes. It blurs the pages, it may turn brittle itself, it eliminates the possibility of browsing, and it kills the vibrancy of newspapers such as the World that were experimenting with multicoloured pictures many decades before Eddy Shah’s Today. “In black and white, it’s like seeing people in an old movie, walking jerkily. When you look through the original papers you realise it isn’t a long time ago – these people who did whatever they did, dropped a bomb on Japan, they are really very similar to the way we are.”
If there is one villain in Baker’s story it is a former deputy director of the Library of Congress, Verner Clapp. Clapp was the kind of man who, in any other decade, would have been asked to gather his belongings and move along because he was disturbing the other customers, but among American librarians of the 1950s he was idolised. The “problem” of libraries, as he saw it, was to prevent the past from “clogging the channels of the present”. Microfilm was one of his solutions; the other was a harebrained combination of closed-circuit television and a “pneumatic page turner”, intended to allow readers to study a book in a library many miles away so that only one copy would need to be kept. It didn’t work, of course, but Clapp’s ideas proved influential in the establishment of America’s $358m Brittle Books Program, in which thousands of titles were “disbinded” – an exquisite library euphemism for “ripped apart” – to allow them to be photographed.
Double Fold takes its title from the test that was used (although not at the British Library, the institution says) to measure brittleness: folding the corner of a page back and forth until it broke. Readers, needless to say, do not read books in this manner, and the test, Baker writes at the end of a chapter of characteristically sombre analysis, “is of course utter horseshit and craziness… Would you check the resilience, and hence the utility, of a diving board by counting how many times you could fold it back on itself before it failed? No, you would not. In fact, a diving board that you could double-fold 10 times might be an unacceptably floppy diving board.”
Libraries have been quick to label Baker an eccentric. And he is, of course. But the horseshit and craziness continues, he insists – in microfilming and in more recent digitisation projects in which he claims books are still being destroyed “in order to preserve them”, falling back on the same technocratic argument that the book or the newspaper is the information contained within in it, not the physical object. Baker angles forward even further on the sofa as he outlines this widespread belief, eyebrows climbing in exasperation. “An old thing is a potentially lost thing; there’s a beauty there that has to do with its oldness,” he says. “Some people do get it, some people don’t get it. I accept that some people are not going to get it. It just doesn’t seem to me that the people who don’t get it should be in charge of collections of old things.”