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Scare Tactics’

To the Editors:

I write as a mid-size player in the US Newspaper Program (I directed the microfilming phase of the New Jersey Newspaper Project) and as a published historian who has benefited from microfilmed sources far more than I have been inconvenienced. My remarks concern Nicholson Baker’s condemnation of the US Newspaper Program (USNP), which were enthusiastically seconded by Robert Darnton in his review of Baker’s Double Fold [NYR, April 26].

Any newspaper librarian who discards a gorgeous color front page, such as the New York World displayed in the review, should rightly be criticized. And certainly a few outstanding big-city titles (the only ones Darnton mentions in his review) should be preserved in paper form as long as possible, in hopes that some miracle technology will be developed before they have begun to disintegrate. From here, I dissent as follows from Baker’s book and his gullible reviewer:

(1) Colorful big-city titles long stored in well-air-conditioned libraries were not the norm on my side of the Hudson River or, I suspect, elsewhere in the USNP. My mission was to film the monochromatic Swedesboro News, (Hoboken) Jersey Observer, and Secaucus Home News. We found these and other titles stored on the top floors of un-air-conditioned libraries, in the moldy basements of historical societies, in peoples’ homes, and in the hands of publishers—who might well toss them at the next change of ownership. The condition of some of the titles gave the lie to Baker’s rosy descriptions. Pages fragmented in microfilmers’ hands as they carefully flipped them over. In many cases pages had to be taped together (yes, taped—we couldn’t afford archival treatments) before they were filmed. All told, we preserved 3.147 million pages on $800,000 in federal funding, or about $0.25 per page.

(2) Newspaper microfilmers disbind volumes not because they are in a “hurry” to film as much as possible, but because book cradles are often too small and also incapable of allowing readers to view text bound too tightly in the gutter. (The inner margins of the New York World displayed in the review article would be lost in the gutter if filmed without being disbound.) Book cradles are also extremely cumbersome for newspaper filming, which increases costs, something that Baker continually grumbles about.

(3) As a researcher, I enjoy the conven-ience of helping myself to microfilm from a drawer, popping it on a reader, and making copies at my leisure. Using modern readers, I find properly produced microfilm of printed material to be almost as easy to read as the original. I can also purchase reels or borrow copies of newspapers by interlibrary loan. With original newspapers, I must wait for library staff to page heavy, dirty volumes from the stacks. They can never be loaned; copying requires a specialized $20,000 overhead photocopier that few libraries can afford.

(4) The book and review are written in almost complete ignorance of the pervasiveness of modern microfilming. I’m sure that libraries have produced occasional reels or batches of substandard film with the characteristics described in Double Fold. But if filmed, processed, and stored to standards, the master negatives of microfilm should last five hundred years. This is so widely acknowledged throughout government and industry that the US judiciary has accepted microfilm as a legal substitute for paper. Go to any record office for a copy of a twentieth-century deed, marriage record, or court minute, and you will usually be presented with a copy generated from microfilm: the paper copies have long since been discarded because government offices cannot afford the cost of storing them. Businesses behave likewise. If Mr. Baker truly believes that microfilm is a technological disaster, he has a lot more powerful institutions to crusade against than mere libraries.

Yes, I and other preservationists exaggerated the danger of paper turning to “dust.” We did so because we were presented by the NEH with a once-in-a-century opportunity to reformat wood pulp papers that will eventually become unusable, and scare tactics were sometimes necessary to convince repositories to part with their decaying holdings. I cannot comment on the library practice of discarding whole-sale originals in decent condition, except to say that any film produced in the 1950s and 1960s should have been checked well for quality before being accepted as a substitute.

As for Professor Darnton’s final demands regarding newspaper retention, they are meaningless in the absence of his accompanying support for an enormous fund-raising effort. The NEH can fund “nondestructive” microfilming of newspapers only at considerably extra cost, but their budget is unlikely to be increased in the current political climate. As for his idea that “several libraries around the country should begin to save the country’s current newspaper output in bound form,” I doubt that Professor Darnton will find any takers. Since the public will demand that all titles be filmed anyway, for the reasons mentioned above, what institution(s) would want to shoulder the expensive costs of indefinitely storing and servicing an immense and increasingly fragile body of paper? (Contrary to Nicholson Baker’s suggestions, newspaper libraries are considerably more expensive to construct and manage than Home Depots and pet food warehouses.) The cost would be especially hard to justify in view of the realization that the newspapers would be seldom used because either: (1) the public would prefer the convenience of microfilm, or (2) use would be necessarily restricted due to the newspapers’ fragility. All told, I think the reviewer’s demands on libraries are rather unreasonable.

To be fair to Professor Darnton, a scholar of early modern France, it’s understandable that he would be a bit at sea on the subject of North American newspapers. The historical bibliography of New Jersey newspapers, I was once told, exceeds that of all of France; at last count, it numbers over 230 dailies and weeklies. Perhaps The New York Review could have found a reviewer more knowledgeable of the sheer extent of the newspaper flood overwhelming US libraries?

Daniel P. Jones
Archivist and Publications Director
New Jersey State Archives
Former Director, New Jersey Newspaper
Project: Microfilming Phase
Trenton, New Jersey

Robert Darnton replies:

Having worked with microfilm for forty years, I do not share Daniel Jones’s optimism that the cellulose will last five centuries. Some of mine is already unreadable. I congratulate him for having microfilmed the Swedesboro News and other papers, but I wonder about his endorsement of “scare tactics” to persuade libraries to get rid of their holdings. What happened to those newspapers after he sliced them apart, splayed them out, and photographed them? His disparaging reference to “nondestructive microfilming” suggests that he practiced the destructive variety. I do not dispute the importance of microfilming, but I think his letter confirms Nicholson Baker’s argument about government-subsidized vandalism.

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