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.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.
"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. 
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"  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!