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Here's one for the librarian new amongst us.
The rage for destruction at libraries
By Katherine A. Powers, 4/22/2001
I have in my library an uplifting little pamphlet from 1963 called
''Books and Television.'' It is an address given by Frank Stanton,
president of CBS, to the Citizens Advisory Committee of the New York
Public Library at their annual dinner. He had come before them to explain
how unfounded were the fears of certain ''self-appointed guardians of our
society'' that television would ''create a generation of illiterates,''
that ''the whole of the American cultural experience would be degraded
into what is now named'' - or, as he scrupulously points out, ''perhaps
misnamed - the `mass cult.'''
Pshaw! Stuff and self-appointed nonsense! The fact is Stanton bears
tidings of comfort and joy: When it comes to books, he tells the good
citizens, ''television has had a profound and beneficial effect.'' It
encourages reading. Lordy, even the biggest book bug of them all, the
actual Librarian of Congress, Quincy Mumford, agrees - and not just on a
hunch. No, sir: He caused a survey of 28 libraries to be made, and the
bibliophilic effect of television was revealed.
Well, if you think that's funny, it's nothing compared to the dark comedy
of Stanton's opening remarks: ''I am,'' he declares, ''delighted to share
with you, if only briefly, the comforting permanence of your collections.
..... I can only envy you the durability of the printed word, and indeed
the task of collecting and preserving.'' Little did this visiting
evangelist know - little, indeed, did most of the honest citizens to whom
he spoke know - that deep in the library's vastness, hundreds of
irreplaceable, historically vital volumes had already been tossed out,
with hundreds more slated for extinction.
The destruction of library holdings - bound volumes of newspapers and
books themselves - in the name of ''preservation'' is the subject of
Nicholson Baker's ''Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper''
(Random House, $25.95; reviewed in ''Short Takes,'' on Page L3), a work
of masterly debunking and dogged investigation. In a nutshell, Baker
shows how the microfilming of newspapers and other serial publications,
and the attendant disposal of the original paper, became orthodoxy thanks
to a propaganda campaign worthy of Lee Atwater. Baker shows which
interests were served; what the motives were of those who jumped on the
bandwagon; how the campaign to replace big paper with miniature plastic
siphoned vast sums of money from taxpayers and directed it away from
preservation, toward destruction and dissolution. He reveals the
appalling inadequacy of microfilmed publications: microfilm's
instability, slapdash execution, failure to reproduce color and shading,
hideous expense, and the sickness unto death that readers feel for it.
In my distant past I worked as an archivist at various nonprofit
institutions. I thought I knew it all about the rage for destruction that
dwells in the hearts of the people who formulate collection policies. But
even I, toughened cynic that I am, was shocked by Baker's book, a book
that shows as clearly as anything the ''banality of evil.'' For one of
the most saddening aspects of this vandalism is that those who promoted
it were good people in general - as, I dare say, were the formulators of
the Delicious (sic) apple, or of the notion that eggs and butter are bad
and that hydrogenated vegetable-oil sludge is good.
Baker's book has caused crabbiness among the sort of responsible,
irrationally reasonable people who hate to see someone go ''too far.''
Robert Darnton, writing in The New York Review of Books, agrees with
Baker's essential points but doesn't like his tone. The book, which is
written with brio, rubs Darnton the wrong way: He takes exception to
Baker's description of the offenders he interviewed - seeming most upset
by references to bowties. He also points out (as Baker himself does,
countless times) that libraries have pretty much ceased throwing out
books and periodicals after microfilming them. (On the other hand, most
libraries have also ceased collecting paper editions of newspapers.)
I got so worked up by ''Double Fold'' that I phoned the Boston Athenaeum,
which is being renovated. I asked if the librarians there had hung on to
their bound volumes of Boston newspapers, great tomes I have used many
times in the course of indulging my own obsession, the study of crackpots
of yore. They still have them! ''You know about the book `Double Fold,'
by this Nicholson Baker person?'' I asked the pleasant voice that had
told me the papers were safe.
''Oh, yes,'' it answered. ''We know all about him. We had him here and
his somewhat imbalanced views.''
Imbalanced?! Well, I should say so. There are occasions when ''balance''
is the very last thing that's required. The views in question are those
of a man who cashed in his own pension to save several runs - some of
them the only known extant - of major American newspapers that were going
to be sold off to souvenir vendors by the British Library. This is a
fellow who rented a warehouse to store them for future researchers to use
and set up a nonprofit organization to further that end. (In addition to
reading this fine, impassioned, imbalanced book, you can go to
www.oldpapers.org to see the trove he has saved and to contribute to this
worthy cause.) Baker will be speaking at the Boston Public Library - a
noble exception to the majority of libraries that decimated their
newspaper holdings - on April 30.
Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. Her column
appears on alternate Sundays. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
This story ran on page 4 of the Boston Globe on 4/22/2001. © Copyright
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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