The Great Book Massacre

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper

Nicholson Baker
Random House, 370 pp., $25.95

When journalists discuss their craft, they invoke contradictory clichés: “Today’s newspaper is the first draft of history,” and “Nothing is more dead than yesterday’s newspaper.” Both in a way are true. News feeds history with facts, yet most of it is forgotten. Suppose newspapers disappeared from libraries: Would history vanish from the collective memory? That is the disaster that Nicholson Baker denounces in his latest book, a J’accuse pointed at the library profession.

Librarians have purged their shelves of newspapers, he argues, because they are driven by a misguided obsession with saving space. And they have deluded themselves into believing that nothing has been lost, because they have replaced the papers with microfilm. The microfilm, however, is inadequate, incomplete, faulty, and frequently illegible. Worse, it was never needed in the first place, because contrary to another common delusion, the papers were not disintegrating on the shelves. Despite their chemistry—acids working on wood pulp in paper manufactured after 1870—they have held up very well. And now the paper massacre has spread to books. They, too, are being sold off, thrown away, and hideously damaged in hare-brained experiments aimed at preserving them. The custodians of our culture are destroying it.

As jeremiads go, this is an odd one. Wickedness has provided material for lamentation in America since the days of the Puritans. But instead of ranting against the whore of Babylon, Baker aims his indignation at Marion the librarian—not, of course, the small-time, small-town keepers of books, but their high-minded, high-flying superiors: Patricia Battin, for example, formerly the librarian of Columbia University, who led the “assault on paper” from the Commission on Preservation and Access and received an award from President Clinton in 1999 for “saving history.” Baker indicts her for destroying history and makes her into one of the chief villains of his book. The others come from foundations (Ford, Mellon), research libraries (Yale, Chicago), the National Endowment for the Humanities, and above all the Library of Congress.

They make a strange cast of characters: butchers of books from the unlikely world of libraries. Baker describes them as civil, cultivated, and generally genial—the unassuming types you would expect to encounter behind old oak desks in book-lined studies. Making the most of his novelist’s touch, he introduces each character with telling bits of description. They wear “quiet silk scarves,” bow ties, and understated suits. They gaze out at you from beneath “wise-looking eyebrows” and “cheerfully bald” foreheads or through “large, rectilinear glasses similar to those Joyce Carol Oates used to wear in pictures.” Such gentle souls could not possibly be vandals, you tell yourself. And that response puts you under the spell of Baker’s rhetoric, because he tries to show that the barbarians are not at the gate: they are already in the temple, destroying its treasures and doing so all the more effectively because they pad about in sensible shoes and tweed.

The rhetoric fuels the argument, but what is the argument …

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