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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 156-157

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Nicholson Baker, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (New York: Random House, 2001), 370 pp.

I referred to this book in my contribution to the winter 2002 number of Common Knowledge and wrote an essay about it for another journal (Raritan). My reason for calling attention to it yet again is simply that its important message should, I believe, be brought to as wide an audience as possible. Baker, who is a brilliant essayist as well as novelist, has thoroughly investigated (through extensive research and interviews) the history and current status of the library practice of replacing books and newspapers with microfilm or electronic reproductions. The story is fascinating but depressing, because it shows how consistently library administrators, eager to save space, have failed to understand the function of physical evidence in reading—failed, in other words, to see that primary sources are not simply words, but words attached to physical objects made and used at particular past times. (Baker is not, by the way, saying that reproductions should not be made or that they are not useful for some purposes but only that they should not be regarded as replacements for the originals.) Besides writing the book, Baker has contributed to the cause of preservation by establishing the American Newspaper Repository, which now houses many of the volumes of American newspapers that the British Library recently auctioned off. If Baker had not been able to rescue them, they would have ended up in the hands of dealers who tear them apart in order to sell individual issues to people who want birthday souvenirs; and the British Library collection was perhaps the last great collection of American newspapers because most American libraries (including the Library of Congress) have long since thrown out the bulk of their holdings in favor of (often defective) microfilms.

Some of the controversy aroused by Baker's book is a perfect illustration of one of the problems that Common Knowledge is trying to solve: the rarity of real conversation in which each participant truly listens to what others have to say. The library-administration establishment, feeling on the defensive, has criticized the book for being an emotional outburst rather than a balanced argument. Baker does take a position and express it in strong terms, but he also explores what can [End Page 156] be said on both sides, quoting extensively from those in the library world. Anyone who is put off simply by Baker's manner of stating his conclusions is guilty of the kind of automatic reaction that characterizes those with closed minds. One may of course wish to differ with Baker, but a productive discussion can come only from paying attention to the serious argument that underlies his conclusions and directly addressing the issues it raises.

That the destruction of originals in the name of "preservation and access" continues apace is illustrated by a front-page New York Times article on December 30, 2001. Entitled "Ingenuity's Blueprints, into History's Dustbin," it reports that the United States Patent and Trademark Office is converting its archives to an electronic database and in the process is throwing away many original drawings of inventions submitted for patent protection. Random dips into the trash bins outside the Patent Office have turned up sketches by Thomas A. Edison. Officials, according to the Times, "pointed to the difficulty and cost of warehousing paper." A massive job of education is needed to acquaint those in charge of documents (of all kinds, including books and newspapers) with the essential role of originals in scholarly research and, indeed, in serious and historically informed reading. The fact that the Times placed this article on the front page (on a slow news day, no doubt) is an encouraging sign—probably prompted by the existence of Double Fold, which is mentioned in the article. More recently, Double Fold has won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction, an event that should give the book and its message a further push into public consciousness...


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