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The Great Book Massacre’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

In reading the review by Robert Darnton of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold [NYR, April 26, 2001], I was struck by the sinister reference to the “villains in the plot [who] turn out to have had some connection with the CIA, Operations Research, missile defense, the Pentagon, or a branch of the military-industrial complex.” The issue is that microfilm technology used by the military for records management beginning with World War II links them to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of unique paper copy books housed in America’s great libraries. This seems unfair based on the history of the US military library program. In defense of the Pentagon and the military they have one of the most outstanding library programs in the federal government. The Department of Defense maintains general, academic, and scientific-technical libraries that are unrivaled. The special collections and historical archives in military libraries are national treasures that are supported and preserved and cared for by the US military leadership. No “mad experiments with book baking and DEZ” or “systematic annihilation” has endangered the collections housed in military libraries. It would be unthinkable to destroy the treasured rare Schley Engineering Book Collection at the US Military Academy, West Point, or the General Omar Bradley Collection at the US Army War College, Military History Institute, or the personal paper collections of Generals Maxwell Taylor and Colin Powell at the National Defense University.

It is bizarre for the review to ask the reader to remember the destruction of villages during the Vietnam War in a discussion of book preservation. During the Vietnam War the US military maintained thirty-seven libraries in Vietnam to include supporting and staffing the Vietnam War College Library and the Vietnamese Military Academy Library. At the close of the war the books not retained by the Vietnamese institutions were shipped to US military libraries in Germany, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii to preserve them for future use. Another example of US military regard for library collections began in 1991 when the US Army in cooperation with the US Information Agency and Library of Congress transferred the holdings of thirty Army libraries closed at end of the cold war to the former East Germany. These collections were used to establish libraries; the most noteworthy of these is the University of Dresden’s American Studies Program, which was formed based on US Army library collections. The US military today continues to provide library support in high- risk areas as evidenced by the establishment of libraries in Bosnia and maintains world-renowned collections at its academic research libraries.

The associations in the review between the destruction of books and the US military are misleading and inaccurate, but perhaps add drama to the author’s argument. The facts are that the US military supports and maintains world-class book collections, administers a worldwide network of libraries, and supports extensive historical programs rich in paper copy documents, manuscripts, and books.

For a comprehensive view of military collections visit merln.ndu.edu.

Sarah A. Mikel

Library Director

National Defense University

Washington, D.C.

To the Editors:

As you may imagine, the publication of Nicholson Baker’s book and the press it has received, in particular the lengthy and ultimately favorable review from the distinguished scholar Robert Darnton [NYR, April 26, 2001], have created much discussion in the library community regarding the framing of an appropriate response. Some librarians are outraged by the purposeful misrepresentations that Baker makes in telling the history of library preservation, focusing primarily on practices that, as Darnton acknowledges, were in place for a short period of time and abandoned many years ago. Some librarians are angry with Baker’s ad hominem attacks on colleagues and their institutions, many of whom devoted distinguished careers to exploring options for the effective preservation of our intellectual heritage. And some—including most of those already mentioned—are glad for the exposure that Baker has given to these issues and look forward to broad public discussion of preservation concerns. Rather than focus on whether Baker was fair or accurate in his “journalistic jeremiad,” as Darnton characterizes Double Fold, I am writing on behalf of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) to place Baker’s arguments in context and to highlight the important issues at stake.

The preservation of the intellectual and cultural record is one of the most important issues facing our society. As Baker makes clear through examples in his book, however, our society has rarely had enough interest in preserving the historical record to fund an adequate level of effort. Most funding for the preservation of print resources in research libraries has been allocated from research library budgets—budgets that must also support the acquisitions, cataloging, servicing, and housing of the collections. Federal funding has been key in sustaining and leveraging local investments and in supporting research into preservation technologies. While the cumulative effects of these multiple investments have been significant, no one in research libraries would ever label them sufficient. Choices have always had to be made.

Despite limited budgets, the uncertainties of new technology, and other compelling institutional priorities, librarians have used the best knowledge and materials available at any given time to develop a broad array of preservation strategies. Darnton acknowledges that “Baker sometimes overstates his case.” As a scholar and user of libraries, Darnton knows that “space is a serious problem for librarians,” that “paper can be fragile,” and that “books can be damaged.” Library collections are first and foremost intended for use. In that process, materials on fragile paper can be damaged, sometimes beyond repair. “Microfilming,” concedes Darnton, “does preserve at least some of the historical record, even if it cannot be an adequate substitute for the original works.” The routine disbinding and discarding of materials as part of the microfilming process, which most disturbed Baker, is no longer done. Microfilming itself is now carried out according to strict national standards established in the 1980s and adherence to these standards is required of all NEH-funded projects. New methods of mass deacidification are safe and cost-effective.

Neither has digitization, as Darnton and Baker warn it might, produced “another purge of paper.” Experimentation has led to the assessment that digitization is most effective in making unique materials available worldwide to students and researchers who could never travel to see the original artifacts housed in a library’s special collections department. More directly to Baker’s point, through the process of digitizing, libraries have identified and treated large numbers of materials in need of conservation. Digitization has become an important way of enhancing the value of the print artifact and ensuring its long-term survival.

Research libraries in North America have almost 500 million print volumes in their collections and add another 10 million volumes each year. In a recent year, they spent over $83 million on a wide range of preservation strategies. Almost 3.5 million volumes were bound, 1 million volumes were restored through conservation treatment, 115,000 items were deacidified, and 156,000 items were placed in protective enclosures. In addition, 110,000 volumes were reformatted through microfilming or photocopying. Almost 50 percent of ARL’s 122 member libraries report significant improvements in environmental conditions in their buildings over the past three years—controlled temperature and humidity being one of the most effective ways to prolong the life of library resources. Could libraries do more to preserve original artifacts? Of course, with additional funding, more materials could be preserved. Will this happen? Only with greater public commitment to preservation of the historical record.

Both Baker’s book and Darnton’s review have served to bring the preservation of print artifacts to the attention of the public. We hope that the interest generated will result in heightened visibility for the many successes that libraries have had in preserving our culture and a better understanding of the complex challenges that libraries face in acquiring, providing access to, and preserving materials in ever more numerous formats, with limited resources. We are glad to see the interest people have in this issue and hope that public discussion will elevate the importance of preservation and reaffirm the positive role research libraries play in this effort.

Shirley K. Baker

President

Association of Research Libraries

Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Dean of University Libraries

Washington University in St. Louis

St. Louis, Missouri

Robert Darnton replies:

The “author’s argument” to which Sarah Mikel objects is Nicholson Baker’s, not mine. In reviewing his book, I thought it important to point out his evidence in Chapters Nine through Thirteen about connections between the destruction of books under the sponsorship of the Library of Congress and operations research developed by the US military.

Shirley Baker’s letter stresses the difficulties of preserving cultural artifacts and the importance of doing so. I would like to echo her remarks by proposing a solution to the problem: the creation of a new Library of Congress, one suited to the needs of the twenty-first century.

We are only beginning to appreciate the urgency of coping with those needs, because we have barely begun to understand how rapidly our cultural heritage is disappearing from paper, film, sound recordings, microfilm, computer disks, the airwaves, and cyberspace. The problems are so vast and complex that they may be unmanageable. Yet they can be seen in a positive light, as an opportunity to create a new kind of institution, a national repository that would maintain a record of everything printed, painted, sung, acted, and composed within the public sphere.

A collective memory bank of this sort should not be an expansion of the Library of Congress but rather a new entity—public but independent of politics, open to all but closed to lobbying, autonomous but administered in the public interest by a board of trustees.

The recent report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections commissioned by the Council on Library and Information Resources should direct attention to a crisis that extends beyond the mission of the Library of Congress and its ability to function as a cultural repository. Not only does the United States lack a deposit library capable of preserving a copy of all important printed matter; not only has microfilming failed to provide an adequate means of saving brittle books and newspapers; not only are all sorts of images and sounds disappearing from the fragile formats on which they were recorded—but electronic media are transmitting texts of great importance that vanish irretrievably into the ether. The means of communication have so outstripped our capacity to store their messages that we no longer can keep a record of cultural production. We are losing our grip on our culture.

I don’t want to evoke the lost library of Alexandria, Ozymandias, and other romantic nostalgia for cultures gone with the wind; but I think Americans fail to appreciate the fragility of the cultural record. The CLIR report provides evidence of disastrous losses that might have been averted—to cite but one example, the loss of 80 percent of all silent films and at least 50 percent of all films made before World War II. Some of us are now attempting to write electronic books, but none of us can be certain that what we write will be preserved for future generations. During my term as president of the American Historical Association in 1999, I learned that most State Department documents since 1970 have been transmitted electronically and that the National Archives cannot store and maintain them, although many are now supposed to be available to researchers. In short, we have a responsibility to our descendants that we are failing to meet.

The problems of cultural conservation are so enormous that they dwarf any foundation’s ability to fund solutions. We need national support for a new kind of national library dedicated to the preservation of cultural artifacts. It could include huge storehouses to keep deposit copies of all publications, search engines to maintain all important electronic communication in the realm of culture, and technological devices of all sorts used to transmit cultural products, from phonograph records and film projectors to floppy disks and computers—everything endangered by antiquation. Of course boundaries would have to be defined, since nearly anything can pass as “culture” and it is impossible to save everything. Policy decisions of that nature would also be part of this institution’s mission.

Who would pay for this? The only answer I can imagine is, the American people. Not, however, through congressional appropriations, which would expose the new National Library or National Culture Bank to political pressure, but through some other means—perhaps a television tax or, better, through income generated from the sale or rental of bandwidth. The airways belong to the people. They should be used to preserve the people’s cultural heritage. And if we don’t do something soon, a great deal of that heritage will disappear. disappear.

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