Monday, December 3, 2012

Completed: Double Fold

Dear Jenny,

Ack! Until a couple of weeks ago, I had been sticking to my 20-pages-per-day goal and have finished three more books! But I still need to write about them and, of course, I still have three to go and now only have 28 days left. Gah! Well, let's get to it...
This book was exactly what I was expecting: Nicholson Baker delivering a very long and well written shit-fit about the fact that our nation's libraries have been scanning all of our newspapers (and a lot of books too!) to microfilm and then... discarding the originals.

While I was reading the book, I must admit I kept thinking: "Who cares?" Or, more accurately: "Wow. I cannot believe Nicholson Baker cares so much about this issue." I mean, everyone cares about something, so I should not judge him for this, but... he just cares so much about something that... well, so very few other people seem to care about.

By the end, I will admit that I did feel a sense of "Yeah! Let's do something about this!" but... it quickly faded. Everyone has their pet cause. Baker's is antique newspaper and book destruction, mine is plastic bags. Other people? Literacy, breast cancer awareness, water conservation, etc. We can't all care about everything and sometimes things speak to us more than others. 

I am going to shamelessly grab the description of this book from Amazon:
The ostensible purpose of a library is to preserve the printed word. But for fifty years our country’s libraries–including the Library of Congress–have been doing just the opposite, destroying hundreds of thousands of historic newspapers and replacing them with microfilm copies that are difficult to read, lack all the color and quality of the original paper and illustrations, and deteriorate with age.
With meticulous detective work and Baker’s well-known explanatory power, Double Fold reveals a secret history of microfilm lobbyists, former CIA agents, and warehouses where priceless archives are destroyed with a machine called a guillotine. Baker argues passionately for preservation, even cashing in his own retirement account to save one important archive–all twenty tons of it.
So there you have it. Libraries are destroying newspapers and books after scanning them to microfilm. In many cases, the material needs to be destroyed in *order* to microfilm it -- it gets "disbound" (also gruesomely called "guillotined") to scan and rebinding is, well, yeah. Not easy.

There are several illustrations in the book that compare the clarity of the original work to the hideous reproductions via microfilm. If you remember using that crap when we were kids, you know he's got a point. Microfilm sucks. Also, it deteriorates. Also, many mistakes were made when the books and newspapers were originally scanned. So they're incomplete. Again, he's right: It's bad news. But when he gets into the "secret history" described above, the book kind of goes off the rails for me. It's probably interesting to other conspiracy theorists -- I just don't really have that bent.

The Double Fold Test
The name of the book comes from a completely terrible method that libraries use to test the "brittleness" of a book. They fold a corner of the page back and forth several times until it breaks. If it breaks right away, the book is "brittle" and is therefore going to "fall apart soon!!" (said in Chicken Little's best Voice of Panic there).

Of course, pages and books are not actually handled that way -- who's bending the pages back and forth when they read? (I mean, except as a book-destroying way to bookmark a page.) (I am totally guilty of this.) (But only on paperbacks and only books that I own myself!) Baker describes his revised idea for a test:
     Late one night, after the children were in bed, I began some random experimentation at the household bookshelves. My wife asked me what I was up to.
     "I'm --- performing the fold test," I said.
     "Please stop breaking the corners off our books," my wife said. "It can't be doing them any good."
[he goes on here to expound on the fact that this book has actually failed the Double Fold test -- one bend and a corner breaks off -- but it's long, so I've cut it out... ]
     This was the sort of book over which preservation people shake their heads and say, "it's got one read left in it." Or, in a sad but firm voice, "We've got just one change to turn these pages, and it better be when they're under the camera." [more expounding...]
   And yet this was clearly a usable book: I was using it, and not gently, either. I don't cover books with plastic sleeves; I pile them on the floor around my chair, and sometime the piles topple. Any manual procedure that woudl conclude that my book was "unusable" or "unserviceable" was a flawed procedure. [159]
He then develops a new "procedure" that night -- one where he simply turns the pages of the book -- you know, like you do when you are, say... reading it? And he stops after 400 turns back and forth. Of the same page. And that page has not broken off, disintegrated, turned to dust, etc.  -- all of the claims that the "Double Fold test" would have supported. So, you know... he's right. But, of course, this fact doesn't really get him anywhere. The Double Fold test continues on.

The Durability of the 100+ Year Old Page: I've Seen It!
Coincidentally, I can tell you from personal experience that Baker is totally right that it is pure and utter bullshit that paper will not last for over 100 years. Several months ago, I had the pleasure of reading some 100+ year old letters written by my great-grandmother (seriously!)

We held them with our bare hands and no one in the family had every "preserved" them -- they were still in perfect condition. This was before I had read Baker's book, and we were all remarking on how fresh and new the paper still seemed and how surprised we were by that. So I guess the Chicken Little propaganda is working -- we assumed those pages would be disintegrating, but nope.

And Now? What's Going on Today?
At the end of the book, Baker ends up cashing out a good portion of his retirement to buy a bunch of full newspaper runs that were being sold off post-microfilm. He kept them in a warehouse and allowed people to come and use them. In poking around the Internet, I have just discovered that Baker has donated that collection to Duke University who, of course, has agreed to never destroy the original media.

The reason I was poking around in the first place is because I was looking for some sort of followup to this epic journey. This book was originally published in 2001 and a shit-load of technological advances have been made since that time! Surely there are super-awesome-fantastic scanners that exist now that can scan/photograph books and newspapers and still allow them to be preserved in their original form, right?

Unfortunately, I couldn't really find any followup information about this story. Apparently, Baker is the only one interested in bringing this topic to the mainstream (I'm sure it's discussed behind closed library doors every day) and he has since shelved it. (Har har.) I did find many, many librarians who still hate him for this book because he holds librarians accountable for standing by while the travesty happens (in fact, there is a library association that has an entire page on its site devoted to rebutting this book. I'm not linking, as they kind of scare me.) He wrote, "The library has gone astray partly because we trusted the librarians so completely" [104] which, I'm guessing, kind of pissed 'em off.

But other than the Angry Librarians and reviews from when the book came out, I cannot really find much new information. It just seems like... 11 years later, it's time for Baker to re-address the issue that he had so much passion about then. What is happening now? Are all of the materials destroyed, as predicted? Is there a new solution to the problem? The new panic in the book world seems to be "eBooks are going to put pBooks out of business!" so perhaps that's where all the outrage now lies? I don't know.  Just felt like I wanted an update/epilogue/follow-up, etc. which I couldn't seem to find anywhere.

Holy crap, I wrote a really long re-cap of this book.  And I didn't even scratch the surface!The premise was so basic, but Nicholson Baker (and now I) had a lot to write about it. Whew!


PS -- One absolutely fantastic thing about this book? It had over 60 pages of endnotes that Baker does not reference within the text at all. Meaning that I could happily burn through this book without being distracted by all of the tiny numbers and the flipping to the back of that book! Thank you, Nicholson Baker, for sparing me the flipping!


  1. K,

    You did a great job on that recap---super interesting and who would have guessed?!

    Like you, I wish I would know the current state of this. Although, from my perspective, the digitizing of archives is EFFING GENIUS. Just from my perspective as a teacher and learner, I can say that having all this stuff be in databases is astounding.

    For example, right now at this very minute, my students are doing research about Anne Frank. They choose a date in her diary and look it up in the New York Times historical database. They can read the whole entire New York Times from World War 2 (it actually goes back to the 1800s---you can look up the New York Times for The Civil War. I usually show them the day after Lincoln was shot! Or the original coverage of the Titanic sinking! It's AMAZING!) They look at the front page, a war article, and some advertisements. Finally, they query the database to find article about how the Jews were being treated---trying to determine for themselves how the Holocaust was covered in the New York Times.

    Kelly, this is SO EASY TO DO WITH DIGITIZED ARCHIVES. When I was in college, I did newspaper research on microfilm using The Irish Times and I had to drive to the University of Delaware to do it. It's ridiculous. I feel like perhaps Baker is missing the forest for the trees (har har). If the point of keeping archives is to USE THEM, then I'm afraid that I'm just going to have to disagree with Baker.

    I don't know, though. I guess I see the shame in having the originals destroyed, but it's pretty astounding what we now have access to through our libraries**


    **Because I work for a school that pays big money for access to these databases, I can get all the good stuff pretty easily, including access to the premium database for academic journals JSTOR. I do realize that this is lucky. Unless you're a university student, some of these databases are difficult to access. Although most local library systems would allow access to basic ones they subscribe to...

  2. Oh, I did a bad job describing his point! He's not against digitalization -- he's against the absolutely horrendous job that it *microfilm* has done of reproducing the original work, all of the mistakes that are made during scanning (missing pages, pages upside down, bad scans, etc), and the fact that it's less durable than the original books. And then... we go and throw the originals away! That data is now irrevocably lost forever.

    That's his big problem -- we're losing shit when we're claiming to "preserve" it.

    He totally supports the accessibility factor -- he's got no problem with that. He's got a problem with tossing "disintegrating" books when we haven't made a good replacement for them first.

    Sounds like your students are experiencing the new technology, though -- if the scans are good, that's progress over microfilm!

    Side note... just read Baker's review of a Kindle 2 from 2009. It is predictably long-winded, but here is the gist: he's curious but skeptical, tries it out, kind of hates it, researches (and reports on) the entire history of eBooks (it's Baker! Of course he does!) then discovers Kindle reading on his iPod Touch and... loves it! (I love this, of course, because I do almost all of my Kindle reading on my iPhone. I probably don't even need a Kindle device. In fact, it's still packed in a box somewhere from our move 6 months ago...). He then goes back to reading on the Kindle and find he likes it (which, I will admit, *when* I bother to dig up my Kindle, I also enjoy it -- my biggest problem? It's one more thing to remember to charge.) I especially love his report because so few people seem to share my feeling that reading on the iPhone is awesome -- especially at night, in bed (which he mentions).

    Now that's I've spoiled it all for you, here it is:

    Sooo... I'm curious about JSTOR --Baker takes several swipes at it throughout the book. They were one of the biggest microfilm pushers. When you use that, are you viewing copies of old microfilm or has everything been rescanned, or... I don't know. Do you ever look at any other periodicals than the New York Times (which is not a publication we are in danger of "losing"). For instance, the Irish Times that you had mentioned. Or maybe something even smaller.

    Baker has a photo in his book of the horrendously copied New York World from February 11, 1912. Want to do some investigating? See if you can fine that thing on JSTOR and get a look at it -- it looks like it's the cover and it says "The Man in the Silk Mask." The original was beautifully illustrated. The copy is mostly a dark blob. If it's still a dark blog in JSTOR, we have our answer. :) Oooh! Sleuth-y!

  3. K,

    I might be more sleuthy over the winter break, but until then, I expect I'll be swamped. I will definitely investigate. I've used JSTOR quite a bit, and I've never found stuff missing or incomplete.

    I love reading on my Kindle and my phone. I hate reading on my iPad. I actually did something I don't normally do, and I bought myself a Christmas present this year: The Kindle Paperwhite. It's Kindle sized but back-lit like a phone. I'm pretty excited about it AND IT SHOULD GET DELIVERED TOMORROW.

    Well, actually, I'm sort of annoyed by this total first world problem I'm having: the Paperwhite was backordered when I placed my order for it around Thanksgiving. According to the Amazon website, it wouldn't be delivered until December 21. As you know, I usually have everything delivered to school because they won't just leave packages at our front door. I therefore had it delivered to my house because they close up the school for the winter break. OF COURSE, it shipped early and now I'll probably have to deal with going to pick it up at the UPS delivery center at some point. Bah. The ironic thing is that I had a feeling this would happen. Only now it occurs to me that there was an obvious solution to this problem: keep the shipping address school, changing it only when I reached the 2 day window for winter break approaching.

    This reminds me: I've had both your gifts mailed to your new house. Who knows when they'll arrive. But more importantly: HOW IS YOUR HAIR??