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hief among the casualties in an increasingly virtual world are books, newspapers and periodicals: old paper-based repositories of knowledge and information that libraries are hastily converting to microfilm and optical disc. So says the novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker in his impassioned and compelling new book, "Double Fold."
Mr. Baker makes no secret of his point of view: he believes that primary records, in all their papery glory, should be preserved; that reports about the aging and deterioration of paper have been vastly exaggerated; and that the disposal of these original texts by space-squeezed libraries is a crime. "This isn't an impartial piece of reporting," he writes in a preface to his book. "I've tried not to misrepresent those whose views differ from my own, but I make no secret of my disagreement; at times, a dormant prosecutorial urge awoke in me, for we have lost things that we can never get back."
Among those lost things, Mr. Baker writes, are what he estimates to be some 975,000 books discarded after microfilming, as well as many irreplaceable collections of American newspapers. All the major newspaper repositories, he contends, "have long since bet the farm on film and given away, sold or thrown out most of their original volumes published after 1880 or so. Nearly all major university libraries, state libraries and large public libraries have done the same."
From newspapers, he observes, libraries, intent on downsizing, began to turn to books. To film many of these books, technicians removed their bindings to facilitate faster, mechanized processing; the disassembled books were then discarded, thereby enabling the libraries to clear more shelf space. The filming process, Mr. Baker argues, also had "the entrepreneurial appeal of creating a product you could sell to other libraries, and the further compensations that flowed from selling your master negatives and reproduction rights to commercial microfilm companies."
Microfilm, however, turned out to have problems of its own. Mr. Baker notes that "compared to storing the originals in some big building, microfiliming is (like digitization) wildly expensive, even in high-contrast black and white." A 1957 study found that microfilm made for "somewhat fuzzy print" and "minimal quality control," and another report in the 70's noted that microfilm continued to suffer from "smudges and stains; scratches; dirt and dust; text cut off in the margin; missing pages; images reversed, upside down or out of order; and assorted blurs caused by improper lighting, improper contrast, poor resolution and lack of proper focus."
Added to that was the problem of longevity, the very reason microfilm was chosen to replace crumbling, acid-ridden paper in the first place. Mr. Baker writes: "Reviewing microfilm's silver-emulsional troubles in 1978, Carl Spaulding, at the Council on Library Resources, pointed out that since libraries don't usually store their film at the extremely low humidity levels specified by industry standards, Āthe plain fact is that almost no libraries can claim to have archivally permanent film.' "
While librarians were playing down the infirmities of film, Mr. Baker writes, they were playing up the fragilities of paper. He accuses proponents of microfilm and digitizing -- led by Patricia Battin at the Commission on Preservation and Access -- of wildly exaggerating the "brittle books" crisis to raise money for microfilming. In one article Ms. Battin charged that "approximately 25 percent of the world's great collections are already brittle and turning to dust," and in 1989 she told Congress that embrittlement was "an unprecedented crisis."
Congress, Mr. Baker reports, responded by allocating millions of dollars for the microfilming of endangered books, though there was little or no money to support the repair of existing books. In the 80's and early 90's "filming activity often took a Āvacuum-cleaner approach,' as it came to be called."
"Operators bundled off whole stack-ranges that were determined to be at risk rather than going through the shelves book by book to figure out what physically ought to happen to individual items."
Many of those books, "chopped and chucked in the cause of filming died for nothing," Mr. Baker writes, because microfilm has become increasingly obsolete and will have to be converted to optical disk for digital storage and retrieval, a process, he argues, that will be enormously expensive both to carry out and to maintain. Scanned copies of little- used books, he writes, "demand constant refreshment, software-revision-upgrading and new machinery, the long-term costs of which are unknowable but high."
Mr. Baker's passionate espousal of his convictions can lead him to indulge in hyperbole, not to mention vituperation directed at well-meaning if sometimes misguided people eager to save the information in supposedly deteriorating publications. Early in this book he writes that "not since the monk-harassments of 16th- century England has a government tolerated, indeed stimulated, the methodical eradication of so much primary-source material." Later he estimates that a library that spends $300,000 a year to maintain its online catalog "will have to come up with $1.5 billion a year to maintain copies of those books on its servers."
Despite the more alarmist passages in this book, despite its often meandering and repetitive structure, Mr. Baker's core arguments possess a bedrock common sense. He points out that the "use it or lose it" argument used by some librarians, eager to pare their collections, defies the very definition of a great research library. He reminds us of the frustrations of using microfilm and proposes "preservation photocopying" instead, which is "faster and cheaper than microfilming" and considerably more convenient to use.
Finally, he wonders why books and digital copies are so often regarded as mutually exclusive choices: why, he asks, can't we have both "the benefits of the new and extravagantly expensive digital copy and keep the convenience and beauty and historical testimony of the original books resting on the shelves, where they've always been."
Whether the reader agrees with all of Mr. Baker's arguments, his provocative book addresses an important and all too frequently overlooked subject: the future of our libraries in the digital age and the fate of the printed word.