The Society of American Archivists
SAA Logo

Log in / Log out

Join SAA

Contact us

Society of
American Archivists

17 North State Street
Suite 1425
Chicago, IL 60602-3315
tel 312/606-0722
fax 312/606-0728
toll-free 866/722-7858


Co-sponsor a Program at Your Institution!

Don't Fold Up:
Responding to Nicholson Baker's Double Fold

by Richard J. Cox  |  April 18, 2001


See also: SAA Council's Response to Nicholson Baker's Double Fold



This essay is a preliminary effort to assess the implications of Nicholson Baker's new book on library preservation. I consider it a work in progress, for three reasons. First, Baker's tome requires detailed responses from many sectors of the library, archives, and preservation communities, as I describe in the review below. It also requires careful and calculated responses since it is a serious work attracting broad media attention. For one thing, Double Fold, unlike his previous New Yorker articles, provides detailed annotation and documentation that needs to be carefully analyzed.

Second, this review is being offered before my debate with Mr. Baker at Simmons College on May 16, 2001, so it is offered without any additional insights gained by how and what the author of Double Fold emphasizes in public presentations about his book and the public responses to the book are only beginning to appear (and only those in the major newspapers and book review publications). My previous response to Mr. Baker, published as "The Great Newspaper Caper: Backlash in the Digital Age," First Monday 5 (December 4, 2000), available at, was written before I read his full book or the early reviews of it (I have cited and quoted liberally from these reviews because they also suggest reasons why we need to take seriously Nicholson Baker and his arguments), and it also represents a preliminary response (although I do not think I have changed my mind in any substantial ways since reading the book).

Third, this is an incomplete response since it reflects my perspective as an archivist, a profession that I am not sure Nicholson Baker understands or at least can distinguish from the library discipline. My response from this perspective does not necessarily cover all the dimensions of Baker's arguments or targets. In fact, I am writing as one who is most focused on the matters of archival appraisal, education, and the application of technologies. At the moment I am preparing a longer response to Baker, deriving from my First Monday essay, this review, and a paper prepared for the Simmons debate for a collection of essays reexamining archival appraisal.

A Jolt from the Blue

Imagine that you woke up one morning to discover that archives, historical manuscripts, rare books, and newspaper collections were the subject of journalists, book reviewers, and radio and talk show hosts around the country. Imagine that the issue of preservation, even its nuances from its fellow function conservation, was being contemplated by the news media. Imagine that the purpose of libraries and archives was being considered, anew, by social pundits through every conceivable media outlet.

If I had started off an essay like this a few months ago, people would have pointed at me and murmured, like the John Lennon song, that I was a "dreamer." Archivists, and librarians for that matter, are not accustomed to being the topic of national discourse, despite more than two decades of discussion and efforts about the merits of public programming to change this. Occasionally this changes, such as with the controversy about Holocaust-era assets or the revelations about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, but in such cases books and records or libraries and archives or librarians and archivists play a supporting, if important, role. Archivists often take a kind of perverse pride in not being understood, making jokes about how confused others seem to be when we introduce ourselves as an archivist or manuscript curator or special collections librarian. However, in one major area, archivists and librarians feel they have made great strides in persuading the public—and that is the importance of preservation and the steps needed to contend with ensuring that books and records are available for many generations ahead.

Now, we find ourselves in the news. We no longer have to imagine what this would be like, because the unimaginable has happened—we are in the news (maybe we are the news)—and because the scrutiny may get more intense, thanks to the publication of Nicholson Baker's book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (New York: Random House, 2001), ISBN 0-375-50444-3, $25.95. Librarians (and archivists by implication) are being discussed in publications like the New York Times, Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Review of Books. Yet, something is amiss. Librarians and archivists are being attacked in the very area they thought they had gained substantial public support, the preservation of our documentary heritage. And they are not just being sniped at, they are under a major siege—perhaps one that is just getting started. Robert Darnton, in his review, notes that Double Fold is a "J'accuse pointed at the library profession" ("The Great Book Massacre," New York Review of Books 48 [April 26, 2001], p. 16). The David Gates review of the book in the April 15, 2001, New York Times Book Review was the cover story with the headline shouting "Vandals in the Stacks!" and featuring a less than flattering illustration depicting librarians (and archivists?) climbing up a stack of newspapers to destroy them before the public gets access to them. With such racy and controversial sentiments, I suspect we may see Nicholson Baker on television talk shows and hear him on radio in the near future (perhaps this may have already happened).

Who Is This Guy?

Baker is, as most know, a novelist and essayist who first came to the attention of librarians and archivists with his writings about the destruction of card catalogs and books at the San Francisco Public Library in the early 1990s (his 1994 essay, "Discards,"—the opening salvo in his becoming a library activist—has been reprinted in his 1997 The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber [New York: Vintage Books, 1977], pp. 125-181). Since the mid-1980s he has produced a series of novels and one volume of essays, building a reputation as one of America's finest and most interesting writers. Double Fold, while it is Baker's first major nonfiction volume, is not a major departure from either his interests or his writing style, an important point because many seem so willing to dismiss him because he is not an expert on libraries, preservation, or the issues he is discussing. I think this is a mistake.

Double Fold is a natural extension of his literary work (something that Darnton and Gates both suggest in their reviews as well). Arthur Saltzman, an English professor at Missouri Southern State College and author of an analysis of Baker's writings (Understanding Nicholson Baker [Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999]) provides substantial evidence about Baker's literary methods and interests.

According to Saltzman, one of the keys to Baker's success is his "extraordinary attention to ordinary objects" (p. 1) and the everyday (p. 12). Baker's writing style includes a "jeweler's intensity of focus, a forensic scientist's ferocity of detail, a monk's humble delight in private discipline, and a satirist's sensitivity to oddities and errors" (p. 13). In one novel, The Mezzanine, there is worry about the demise of the old-style vending machine. In another, Vox, telephone sex seems to be treated in much the manner in which modern critics Sven Birkerts and Roland Barthes discuss the pleasures of reading text. In The Fermata, the protagonist can freeze time and motion and extract information from wallets, purses, and other sources.

Saltzman, reflecting on Baker's collection of essays published as The Size of Thoughts, notes that some think Baker is an "essayist masquerading as a novelist," wanting to "lecture on the luster and necessity that live in ordinary things or to rail against the casualties one allows them to become" (p. 131). It is not difficult to surmise that Baker's Double Fold, focusing on what is happening with books, newspapers, and card catalogs—all certainly everyday objects—is part of his general orientation to life and not an aberration from his previous literary pursuits. Saltzman argues that Baker is fighting with the "plight of obsolescence"; "Baker trails behind the changing times, raking the fossil remains, picking up the sloughs" (p. 143). For Saltzman, Baker is battling with "cultural amnesia" and he is a "conservationist of the highest order" (pp. 178, 181). Some might believe that Baker would make a good archivist, focused as he is on details, societal memory, and preservation.

A reading of Double Fold by an archivist or librarian might quickly disabuse one of the idea that Baker has missed his calling, given the book's critical and conspiratorial tone in describing libraries and archives. It would be a mistake to dismiss Baker's tome because Double Fold is well written, amply documented, and quite persuasive. Robert Darnton, himself a persuasive writer and friend of libraries and archives, notes the "spell of Baker's rhetoric," even though Baker substantially stacks the arguments in his favor and against the custodians of books and archives ("The Great Book Massacre," pp. 16, 17).

Also, as Baker states in his preface, he is a lover of libraries, and anyone reading Double Fold will be convinced of this. For a major literary figure to take the time to write such a book, possibly with far less potential financial gain and the distractions from other writing, also suggests that Baker has made a commitment to take on this challenge because he is concerned about the fate of the books and newspapers he is writing about.

It is also not difficult to believe in his passion for his cause, since Double Fold reveals that he is not a fan of those who run libraries and who make decisions about preservation and reformatting. Just as librarians long ago discovered that they can convince the public to love books and even libraries but not necessarily understand the professionals who manage them, so Baker has driven a wedge in between the objects (books) and the places (libraries) where they are stored and the people (librarians and preservation administrators) who administer them.

A Jeremiad

One may be amazed about how persuasive Baker's arguments appear to be. I was dumbfounded, for example, that although Robert Darnton notes that Baker "overstates his case" and that his book suffers at times from the confusion of "investigative journalism" with history, that Darnton still agrees with the premise of Double Fold: "Hyperrealism as a morality tale: it is a tour de force and a great read. But is it true? On the whole, I think it is, although it is less innocent than it seems. It should be read as a journalistic jeremiad rather than as a balanced account of library history over the last fifty years" ("The Great Book Massacre," p. 19).

Darnton even takes seriously Baker's policy recommendations, which take up one (final) page of the text and look like a hasty add-on. That Darnton believes that Baker's "policy" recommendations "coincide" with a draft report issued by the Council on Library and Information Resources, the report is entitled The Evidence in Hand: The Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections and is available at is also surprising since the CLIR report recognizes the complexities and challenges associated with defining, identifying, and selecting artifacts while Baker adheres (seems to anyway) to a Romantic notion that all originals ought to and must be saved. It is obvious that Baker's book is striking at the heart of something many feel passionately about, the maintenance of artifacts.

Double Fold focuses on what has been done in libraries and archives (although the emphasis is on libraries and books), specifically the use of microfilming and the subsequent destruction of newspapers and books for their reformatting in order to preserve their content. Microfilm has been a poor choice, resulting in poor copies and leading to the massive destruction of books and newspapers. Baker's colorful language suggests that these libraries and other institutions have produced a "historical record compromised and disfigured" (p. 136), a "cleanout" of the libraries (p. 15), and a "strip-mined history" (p. 20). While digitization is only dealt with towards the end of the book, Baker clearly argues that digitization is more of the same and may present even greater problems because of the costs and technologies involved (p. 249).

A Conspiracy?

Double Fold is not a mere critique of the preservation methods of librarians; instead, it looks for a conspiracy (and looks and looks). Perhaps Baker is sincere in his convictions or simply frustrated with all the hyperbole about the preservation mandate, or, maybe he knows that conspiracies sell better. Would a book critiquing library and archives preservation, minus a conspiracy theory, be featured on the pages of the leading newspapers and book review outlets? Probably not. Its fate would be to exist as an internal document, discussed and debated deep within the professional journals and conferences. Baker may have given us the opportunity and the motivation (indeed, the absolute necessity) to speak out in a much more public forum not merely as advocates for a particular position (Baker's main frustration may be with the intense marketing of a few dramatic, saleable points—a large portion of the print/paper heritage is on paper that becomes "brittle" and turns to "dust"), but as explainers of complex and difficult responsibilities faced by librarians, archivists, and preservation administrators.

There are weaknesses in this book, and they may prove to weaken Baker's purpose. The most obvious weakness is Baker's invective against those he sees as responsible for the debacle he insists has happened. He repeatedly mentions the "incessant library propaganda" foisted on the public, policy makers, and funders (pp. 5, 6, 18, 41, 68-69, 194, 196, 204), clearly arguing that they lied and, just as importantly, tried to conceal the evidence of their misdeeds. Those of us who have been interested in public outreach have probably viewed the preservation advocacy as major, exemplary successes. Baker argues that the architects of this preservation movement have been secretive, "like weapons procurers at the Department of Defense" (pp. 122-123) and his constant references to the CIA, federal funding, and other like features of the preservation movement all seem rather benign or downright silly.

More serious charges are leveled by Baker in Double Fold. Library administrators, according to Baker, have not been doing their jobs (p. 13), participating in a "slow betrayal of an unknowing nation" (p. 32) and destroying whatever trust the public should have had in them (p. 104). Most importantly, Baker goes after the brittle books effort, berating both the notion of "brittle"—and the idea that books were going to turn into "dust"—and the "crisis" produced by the problem (p. 211). As Baker powerfully declares, "There has been no apocalypse of paper" as many seemed to predict (p. 143), leading Baker to wonder what all the fuss was really about.

Baker may be way too creative a writer for his own good when he tries to figure out how and why these decisions were being made. Perhaps his next book might be a diatribe against the entire advertising industry, because it seems that Baker is mostly upset that librarians have pushed a program that has been reasonably successful in reformatting newspapers, books, and other traditional print resources that seemed endangered and that he sees some evidence for being somewhat exaggerated. Ultimately, his anecdotal descriptions of books declared to be brittle a decade before that are found to be still existing and, worse, that turn up with deaccession marks and command hefty prices as collectibles really seem to miss the point not all books are worth saving, that market prices (which are hardly rational) should play a minor role in the preservation efforts, and that libraries and archives have other priorities and limited funds.

There are various flavors in Baker's concoction. At times, one gets the sense of well-intentioned but misguided decision-making operating within libraries. Baker mentions that these librarians were involved in "impetuously technophilic decisions" (p. 83) and often operated within a "full futuristic swing" (p. 93). They bet too much on what microfilm would do for them and how well it would work (p. 14, 22). More often, however, the librarians come across as evil or as dupes or just plain stupid. The source of the book's title, the test long used for determining how brittle a book's pages may be, is a good example of how Baker approaches his subject: "The fold text, as it has been institutionalized in research libraries, is often an instrument of deception, almost always of self-deception." "It takes no intelligence or experience to fold a corner, and yet the action radiates an air of judicious connoisseurship. Because it is so undiscriminatingly inclusive, and cheap, and quantifiable—because it can be tuned to tell administrators precisely what they want to hear—the fold test has become an easy way for libraries to free up shelves with a clear conscience" (p. 161). That Baker gets hot about such issues can be seen in his characterization of the double fold test as "utter horseshit and craziness" (p. 157). No one today will not acknowledge that mistakes were made with microfilming, especially in producing poor images, or even that some of the arguments for preservation decisions were overstated, but it is one thing to criticize and note problems and quite another to simply denounce all the intentions of what librarians and archivists were doing.

Note how easily one reads a criticism of a particular test as it transforms into a grand conspiracy. Baker really believes that the entire preservation movement of the past couple of generations has been part of an effort merely to save shelf space—an argument he repeats at every available opportunity (pp. 16, 26, 31, 35, 36, 67, 81, 82, 97, 100, 139, 181-182, 183, 233)—in which the "bones of the collection [in this instance, the one at the Library of Congress] were deformed in a deliberate squeeze" (p. 140). This is why Baker is so frustrated by the newspaper microfilming efforts, because once the papers were filmed it was not just the actual papers that were filmed that were destroyed, but original runs of the papers in many other libraries and archives (p. 255). The newspaper microfilming has, according to Baker, "drained beauty and color and meaning from the landscape of the knowable" (p. 259). And the emergence of the brittle books program was part of an effort to divert attention away from the obvious failures in microfilm (pp. 168, 171-172). And here we see the names of many we all knew or know—Battin, Cunha, Kenney, Lesk—all tripped up in some sinister activities, or so says Baker. Has every library tossed its original newspapers because of the availability of the microfilm? Was the brittle books program really a scheme hatched to compensate for other preservation failures? Has all of this really been part of a great effort to save shelf space? We need to develop detailed responses to these (and other) charges because Baker makes it all sound so plausible and so bad.

The Fundamental Weakness of Double Fold

The fundamental weakness of Baker's argument may be his belief, more implicit than explicit, that everything can and must be saved in its original state. As an archivist, this is my main concern with the book. Baker wants those newspapers in the original because the size of the typical newspaper is important (p. 24) and because microfilm projects usually do not capture all of the various editions many major urban dailies produced (p. 47). We need every edition of every newspaper? So says Baker. Baker vents frustration that microfilm, at least in its heyday, was linked with destruction (p. 25, 145) and with the "befuddling divergence" between conservation and preservation where one involves saving originals and the other their destruction (pp. 107-108). Baker wants the paper saved because he believes that we need to study the physical history and durability of early wood-pulp paper (p. 58). Archivists know, however, that saving every item is not possible—we can't even examine all the records—and the archivists and their allies have been developing selection schemes and strategies for years as a means to cope with such challenges.

More sensibly, Baker wonders why we can't have both the originals and copies (p. 67)—and, of course, we can have the originals, microfilmed copies, and digitized versions on the World Wide Web, assuming we can find the resources to do such work. It is because of this perspective that the one true hero in Double Fold seems to be the bibliographer and print scholar G. Thomas Tanselle who knows that "all books are physical artifacts, without exception, just as all books are bowls of ideas" (p. 224). So, save it all.

Tanselle does make compelling arguments for why scholars need original objects, print and manuscript (I have read and used his writings for more than a decade myself), but the fact is that libraries and archives have many other competing priorities with limited resources. Besides, the fact that some scholarship requires such original artifacts does not mean that it can be completely accommodated. What about other challenges, such as the digitally-born objects and records systems, and the other research and purposes served by records that extend far beyond the scholarship on books, printing, and other related matters? Government archives are saving records to ensure accountability. Corporate records management programs are administering recordkeeping systems to ensure legal and regulatory compliance. The world, at least that for libraries and archives, may be a bit more complex than Nicholson Baker knows or cares to consider. This gets us back to the point Robert Darnton made about the "prosecutorial" tone of Double Fold. Baker would be a good attorney. And, as a result, the library and archives community needs some good defense attorneys too.

Archivists know that saving everything is simply impossible, yet this point of Baker's may be what has the most resonance with the public. Malcolm Jones, general editor of Newsweek, was willing to concede that Baker is a "zealot and a polemicist," but he continued: "But he has one towering and inarguable fact on his side: when it comes to books and especially newspapers, nothing beats the original. Historians know this. Librarians, who are after all curators of physical objects, ought to. The real lunatics in this story are the bibliobureaucrats who've come close to destroying the nation's libraries in the name of saving them" (Malcolm Jones, "Paper Tiger: Taking Librarians to Task," Newsweek, April 16, 2001, Baker wades in, pleading, "Leave the books alone, I say, leave them alone, leave them alone" (p. 135). And by the time you finish the book, you want them to leave everything alone as well. But consider the weakness of this. Just letting everything accumulate, and leaving it there in its original form, assumes that libraries and archives do not make selections to begin with (Baker constantly focuses on the Library of Congress as serving as a repository for all printed, copyrighted books), that there are not accidents and catastrophes that weed out such natural accumulations, or that many (most) books and archives will not be used for decades or more (or, perhaps, not used at all).

Does Baker Understand Libraries or Archives?

Double Fold is a book by an individual who loves libraries but who perhaps does not understand them (I love my wife and daughter but that does not always mean I understand them, and they would be the first to admit this). Another weakness is the lack of distinction about types of libraries and the scope of other responsibilities and mandates made by Baker when considering the plight of the preservation of the book, the newspaper, and the artifacts housed in libraries. As I have already mentioned, archives are barely figured in Baker's book. One does not sense that Baker understands the differences between archives and libraries, and in fairness not many outside these disciplines perceive the differences, certainly not how difficult it would be to scale up the preservation and access challenges posed by the countless unique materials housed in archives and the growing challenges of electronic recordkeeping systems. Indeed, one must acknowledge that Baker confuses things because when he focuses on libraries he stresses their archival role, arguing that librarians' "primary task" is to be "paper-keepers" (p. 94). This might be true for large libraries like the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the major academic research libraries around the country, but they represent only a fraction of all the libraries in existence. And these libraries serve many other and often competing functions ranging from community literacy programs to community social centers; for most libraries, the kinds of issues Baker discusses are way out of scope for them except for hoping they have the funds to purchase the microfilm copies or to sustain programs where they can provide access to the online digital versions of the newspapers, books, and journals—so that they can provide access to information their patrons need and want. When Baker does mention access, it is limited to the kind of scholarship carried out in the academic or major research libraries (p. 257).

Managing libraries and archives are difficult, with competing priorities and needs and too few funds to meet all the needs and to solve all the problems. Nancy Boothe, in a posting to the Archives and Archivists Listserv on April 16, 2001, reproducing the text of a letter she sent to the New York Times Book Review, captured the dimension of this problem when she wondered if Mr. Baker's newspaper repository will include the services of a "staff of librarians who have cataloged all the newspapers, including item-by-item holdings, years published, and variant titles"; "a number of trained preservation folks, who do emergency—but long-lasting—repair on ailing wood-pulp paper so we researchers can handle and decipher the originals"; "a large, strong and literate crew of people who shelve the bound volumes or loose newspapers in boxes, as well as retrieve them for researchers (with a short turnaround time)"; and staff and equipment to make the appropriate copies when researchers need them. Good points. Many probably hope that Mr. Baker holds onto his newspaper repository long enough so that he learns about the daily decisions and complicated choices that librarians and archivists have to make, but I have already heard rumors that he is negotiating the sale of his holdings to a major research library.

An Opportunity to Explain Ourselves?

Having stated all this, however, Double Fold may be a powerful stimulant to rethinking about what has been going on in American libraries and archives when preservation is considered. Merle Rubin's review ended with this assessment: "If there is any hope of slaying this particular bureaucratic, paper-devouring dragon, a sea change in mentality is needed, and Baker's eye-opening (and page-turning) book may help alter the climate of opinion before it is too late" ("The Bonfire of Books," Christian Science Monitor, 5 April 2001, And, it is a breach of trust that the reviewers immediately pick up on, leading the Kirkus Reviews to conclude, "if even half of what Baker alleges is true, some of America's most honored librarians have a lot of explaining to do" (69 [1 February 2001]: 35). Lest some quickly dismiss such a possibility, they should remember the impact of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring on the environmental movement, Jane Jacobs's Life and Death of American Cities on urban planning, Ralph Nader's critique (Unsafe at Any Speed) of the Corvair on the American automobile industry, and Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death on the funeral industry. Double Fold may be another similar epoch-changing publication, perhaps persuading the library and archives community that it needs to rethink how it approaches preserving its books and records or at least that it needs to better explain just what it is doing (the CLIR draft report on the artifact already suggests this). I can see in my mind the Congressional hearings and testimonies that will keep us up late at night watching C-Span, especially as Baker is scrupulous in indicating every preservation project, method, and conference that is funded by federal dollars. Someone will ask, I am sure, whether all the millions of dollars were worth anything, and they will draw on all the questions and accusations raised by Baker.

Now, some archivists might take solace after they read this book because it is mainly directed at librarians. I am not sure whether Baker really understands the distinctions between librarians and archivists. For example, at one point Baker notes that a "true archive must be able to tolerate years of relative inattention" (p. 242), neglecting to reflect on the fact that archives must be carefully monitored to ensure that mold, rodents, and other problems do not attack those precious paper documents or that archives are dealing with electronic recordkeeping systems requiring intervention at the point of their creation and design and considerable monitoring and use thereafter. He expresses no concern about such matters. This may not be an important point, because it is the public, reading Double Fold, which lumps us all us together. Rob Walker, reviewing the book for The Standard, states that the book "makes a surprisingly persuasive argument for the preservation of all kinds of old records" (April 9, 2001,,1902,23469,00.html). For the public, newspapers are old records and old records must be what archivists are caring for behind their walls.

The one thing archivists cannot do is to simply label Baker as a crank and ignore him. Although the Archives and Archivists listserv is no clear barometer of the archival profession, it is possible to detect in the early reception of the book that this may be exactly what some archivists want to do. Posters to the list suggested that Baker lives in a "dream world," that he is a "shrill advocate," or, worse, that he is a "joke," and that he has "found a franchise—bashing libraries." Other posters suggested, more prudently, that the book will raise questions for us and that Baker raises many good questions. We may be facing an opportunity to take our cases into the public forum in a way we have not had for years. Archivists and librarians can't afford to get dismissive or condescending of the paper prophet that has arisen in their midst. Baker already has his followers—all those people glued to the television every week watching Antiques Road Show or submitting their bids on eBay (I plead guilty to both activities, although perhaps with less zealousness than others).

Responding to Baker

We need to respond carefully to the many levels of Baker's arguments, and his arguments are complex and comprehensive. Throughout Double Fold, Baker urges caution. In one encounter with a preservation administrator, who argues that they needed to do something, Baker says that "when trying does far more harm than not trying, don't try. Go slow. Keep what you have" (p. 260). Perhaps it would not be a bad idea to call a moratorium on the major reformatting projects for a brief period so we can discuss these issues, do some study, and consider all the options. At the least, why not divert some of the millions of federal and foundation funding to study some of the kinds of questions Baker has raised. We need experts (perhaps not the ones so openly criticized in Double Fold) to consider the following matters:

Re-evaluating the Original Analyses of the Condition of Paper. Baker raises many questions about how pioneers like Barrow, Clapp, and others assessed the condition of paper, its potential deterioration, and, especially, the extent of the exaggeration of the claims for brittle paper crumbling into dust. Baker provides a lot of anecdotal evidence (mostly from his own personal experience and observation), some of it quite compelling, but we need to examine in analytical, if not scientific, fashion the extent of deterioration of paper. Hyperbole on both sides of the debate will not resolve this issue. While it appears that the proponents of reformatting books and newspapers may have overstated their case, it is also possible that Baker has overstated his (I certainly believe he has). Preserving original newspapers across the world does seem excessive, unless undertaken as a very selective exercise.

Factoring in the Needs of Users and the Preservation of Our Documentary Heritage. Throughout Double Fold Baker pulls out examples of people complaining about having to use microfilm, not having access to original books and newspapers, or the loss of information when the book or newspaper as artifact is ignored. However, we really do not know the actual impact of either microfilm or digitization on scholarship and the providing of information in general to genealogists, amateur historians, hobbyists, journalists, citizens groups, and the public. I have talked to archivists who tell me of patrons complaining about having to use original newspapers, so I (and others) can also compile such anecdotal evidence on the other side of the argument as well. That we do not know the nature of use is, of course, another criticism that could be weighed in support of Baker. It does seem that the marketing in support of brittle books and other such efforts preceded extensive fact gathering, although those that built the campaign were certainly well-intentioned and committed to rectifying or retarding the potential loss of our documentary heritage. On the other hand, what is the evidence to suggest that microfilming complete runs of newspapers did in fact enhance scholarship and research more broadly defined? Will we compile, effectively, the evidence about the use of digital materials on the World Wide Web?

Redefining the Education of Librarians, Archivists, and Preservation Administrators. A minor theme in Baker's book, although no less emotional or intense, is the role of education in the crisis he is describing. Baker muses over the fact that the book conservator, the one most likely to save the original artifact, must go through a "slow apprenticeship" while the preservation administrator, the one making those reformatting decisions, "needs but an extra year of library-science courses to earn the right to decide, or help decide, what to do with a stackful of artifacts about which he or she might know almost nothing" (p. 108). At another point, Baker asserts that "there is a direct correlation between the spread of preservation administration as a career and the widening toll in old books" (p. 212). Well, enough said, we need to rethink education. However, most of us have operated on a different level regarding preservation, assuming the main problem was that there were too few trained preservation administrators out there in the first place (except, remember, Baker simply believes you can put these books and newspapers on shelves and forget about them). Of course, adopting Baker's argument that we should just leave the books in the stacks and not bother with them suggests eliminating the education that we already have in place. Someone needs to be educated, us or Baker and, most certainly, the public and funders. I believe we have a major educational venture before us, but not merely in retraining new kinds of preservation administrators but in explaining to the public and policymakers the nature of library and archival preservation.

Explaining that We are in the Selecting not Warehousing Business. One of the most referenced ideas in the early reviews of Baker's book is the notion that all one needs is a large warehouse, like a Home Depot, to store everything (microfilmed, digitized, or just left alone). I shop at Home Depot, and it seems like a pretty simplistic notion. They are big but not big enough, they are not environmentally stable, they lack the amenities needed for staff and researchers, and they are trying to move a lot of goods out as fast as possible for a large profit. Libraries and archives are not warehouses, they are repositories for holding research and other collections that have been carefully evaluated for possessing some continuing documentary value. Librarians call it collection development and archivists term this function appraisal, but whatever it is called the process suggests that we cannot save everything not just because there is too much (there is) but because only a portion possesses value sufficient for justifying the costs for maintaining the materials. The premise that newspapers will be kept in original form seems to resolve effectively that some newspapers require special care (because of intrinsic value—a concept Baker ridicules [p. 224]), but every issue of every newspaper? Newspapers should be saved (in original format) when they have certain physical characteristics that cannot be captured well by reformatting, when they reflect breakthroughs in certain technological advances and changes, when there are landmark shifts in design, or when they represent certain unique social characteristics. The history of the modern newspaper is towards a rapidly disseminating news source mass-produced for expeditious use and resulting in a fairly ephemeral product, something Baker seems to be unwilling to address. He is also uninterested in the records of newspaper publishers, which are certainly equally important for understanding what these newspapers represent.

Re-evaluating the Costs Associated with Preservation and Reformatting. Double Fold dotes on costs of microfilming, digitizing, and storing originals. Baker reads our literature and reports back many of the doubts and concerns raised by librarians and preservation administrators and others about how to calculate or justify the costs of reformatting. What is missing, of course, is any sense on Baker's part of how preservation fits into all the other responsibilities and functions of libraries and archives, especially the comprehension that there are many demands pushing librarians and archivists that compete for financial, staff, and intellectual resources. It is imperative, I believe, that we respond to these monetary criticisms, but that we also do so in a way that indicates that preservation is expensive and that preservation that assumes the maintenance of all originals is expensive beyond our (or Baker's) wildest dreams.

Final Thoughts

Now I have not specifically addressed Baker's own recommendations—publishing discard lists "so that the public has some way of determining which of them are acting responsibly on behalf of their collectors," having the Library of Congress "lease or build a large building" for holding everything, persuading "several libraries around the country" to "begin to save the country's current newspaper output in bound form," and see that the U.S. Newspaper Program and the Brittle Book Program are abolished or require that "all microfilming and digital scanning be nondestructive" and "all originals be saved afterward" (p. 270). I have no problems with including these recommendations into a list of issues for study, but I believe that some more fundamental matters need to be considered first. Baker believes that all originals must be saved, but I do not believe this necessarily follows or is possible.

What all this leads up to is the need to use the same standards for evaluating Baker's book that he himself employs to evaluate preservation efforts of the past half century. Baker critiques the early 1990s film Slow Fires in this fashion: "It would be a better film if what it was saying happened to be truth and not head-slapping exaggeration—then its use of crisis language . . . would have some justification" (pp. 186-187). The same applies, of course, to determining just how exaggerated Double Fold may be. Certainly Baker thinks a "crisis" also exists. I think the exaggeration comes in Baker's characterization of some individuals and the more conspiratorial aspects of his arguments. The truth rests somewhere in his arguments about the massive microfilming and digitization of books that may not be as endangered as we were led to believe. Other problems stem from Baker's blinders to examine only this aspect of libraries (and archives), ignoring their other responsibilities, now including what they will do with e-journals, e-books, and the information and evidence resting on the ever-changing World Wide Web.

Despite whatever problems or weaknesses exist in Double Fold, librarians, archivists, and preservation administrators better read it carefully. The book is receiving favorable reviews, drawing lots of attention, and this will undoubtedly lead some archivists and librarians to start getting some hard questions about what they are doing. Despite whatever one's personal reactions may be to the book, we all need to take it very seriously.


Richard J. Cox is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences. He holds a Ph.D. in library science and an M.A. in history. The author of numerous articles, technical reports, and books, he was named a fellow of the Society of American Archivists in 1989.

Print this page

Pubs Catalog 2009

Online Publications Catalog