Summer 2005 - Volume 8 Number 3
Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper
New York: Random House, 2001
For reasons that elude me, a number of my colleagues seem inordinately concerned that students should read only the latest, most "up-to-date" material on almost any subject. I find this preference for instantaneous, "cutting edge", "this just in news flash" style of education deeply disconcerting. Newer is not necessarily better. Sometimes old scientific theories continue to be upheld, well stated arguments remain durable and well expressed opinions endure. Occasionally, old-fashioned means well fashioned. Ask the people in New Orleans whether tongue-and-groove methods using Cyprus trees works!
It is in this spirit that I hope to avoid the necessity of an apology. I wish to bring to the attention of a wider group of College Quarterly readers a book that is already four years old and therefore eligible in some minds for the dustbin of history. This may be especially so because it is a book written about the frenetic, fast-paced world of information technology. It is also a forceful exposé of some of the most egregious practices currently being carried on in some of the world's most important libraries including, perhaps, a library near you.
To listen to some folks in the knowledge economy, an all-embracing, all-inclusive transformation of the written word is revolutionizing the way that we collect, process, retain, retrieve and apply data. This spills over into more intimate forms of human communication. We no longer talk; we interact. We no longer research; we access files. We dumb ourselves down to PowerPoint presentations. Meanwhile, we are told that all worldly knowledge is at our fingertips and knowledge, we are assured, is power.
Yes, from electronic books to the Internet, the communications revolution is said to be empowering us allor at least that portion of us which can pass through a portal, plop on a platform and cherry-pick the particular pixels that will put us in the picture.
What is more, serious and otherwise intelligent people with impressive academic credentials have actually made the claim that the new technology is forcing too many facts upon us, compelling us to examine too much analysis, and forcing us to suffer from the intellectual burden of "information overload."
In my experience, this is quite absurd. There may be oodles of facts being purveyed, especially in institutions of allegedly postsecondary education; but, a more evident and serious problem is that people no longer read and write much. Despite all the talk about producing the most well-informed, street-wise and sophisticated generation of young people in human history, a fearful number of students in my classes have a difficult time expressing a coherent thought, shoehorning a verb into a sentence and finding Saskatchewan on a map. There is plainly what is today called a "disconnect."
This may, of course, simply be the ranting of an almost retired curmudgeon who has forgotten the truth of the ancient adage: "they older we get, the better we were." Still, I cannot help feeling, unlike CNN, that the world did not change in 2001 or, if it did, it just got a little worse, and that much of the hyperbole about novel information technology amounts to little more than corporate advertising for new computer gizmos disguised as breathless reportage.
If I am even partly right, it is time to stand back a bit from the current enthusiasms of "ed-biz" entrepreneurship and to reflect upon what we are actually doing as we fling ourselves into a state of what Arthur Kroker has perceptively called "digital delirium."
If we do extricate ourselves from the 24/7 world of infotainment and commercial ads (not always easy to distinguish), we begin to notice that we face a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, it is hard to overestimate the quantity of data that is floating in the ether, nor to overstate the nefarious purposes to which it can be put. On the other hand, much of the chatter about collecting, preserving and retrieving valuable information for teachers, students, researchers and citizens amounts to little more than a cruel hoax. We are, instead, in the process of destroying, not maintaining much less creating knowledge.
The argument in favor of expansive, invasive and unlimited information technology normally takes one of two forms. The first affirms the superiority of electronic and, more recently, digital technology over traditional paper. It says that pixels trump papyrus and its progeny because electronic communications take very little space and can be maintained indefinitely, whereas paper is bulky and inclined to decompose. The second denies the utility of books, periodicals and newspapers because, apart from requiring room for storage and being made of fragile material, it is faster to "google" a topic than to search a physical card catalogue or browse the bookshelves.
That's it: size and speed, smaller and quicker. We are urged to contemplate the elimination of libraries as we have known them and to create wired (soon to be unwired), webbed and hermetically sealed workstations in which human gerbils can spin their digital wheels.
The justification for accepting the broad range of data delivery systems is put in terms of efficiency and economy. No matter that the veracity of argument is weak and that some of the supporting evidence is not completely true while the rest is just plain false. No matter that we have seen exaggerated claims for new systems before and have been let down. The power of persuasion is such that we find it hard to buck the tide. Corporate sponsorship and professional development programs combine to dictate college agendas and the new technology is an essential element of that spin.
Remember microfiche? It was supposed to transform library archives. The problem was that it relied on microfilm which blurred pages, went brittle and wound up lasting only a fraction of the time of the documents it was intended to preserve. Too bad much of the original material was declared obsolete and "pulped." Current innovations carry much the same problem. Just a few years ago chronic progressives such as ex-American contractor Newt Gingrich were cheerfully insisting that by the end of the millennium (the previous one, not the present), text books would be redundant. A chicken in every pot, a laptop in every ... well, lap. Yes, and all the great (and most of the not-so-great) books would be on disc, ready to be downloaded at a PC near you.
Well, of course it didn't happen. But that has not stopped politicians, educational authorities and futuristic librarians from engaging in the literary holocaust in all its forms.
American author Nicholson Baker has been noticing what is going on. He has taken up the challenge of defending library collections against their alleged protectors, the librarians themselves. When I learnedpartly through Baker's bookthe extent of the damage, I almost said that I could not understand how librarians could undertake a sustained assault against their own collections. I had noticed and unsuccessfully objected to parallel practices at my own college and local public libraries, but I had foolishly attributed these offences to wickedness or stupidity on the part of the pertinent personnel. I failed adequately to link local practices to general trends. At my least perceptive, I almost said I could not imagine Marion the Barbarianno matter how besotted she became with a hypertext version of Professor Harold Hill and his annoying trombonesconsciously carrying out a program of mass extermination.
But the truth is that, when I paid attention, I could understand all too well. Nicholson Baker understands it even better. Moreover, he not only offered up a passionate cri de coeur, but he also put his money where his heart was. Double Fold is that cry from the heart. A rented facility in New Hampshire (a converted mill which he shares with a potato chip company) where he stores collections he has purchased from library vandals is where he puts his money. Between their covers, Baker contains a comprehensive outline of events that go well beyond silly technophiliac rhetoric and related philistine dismissals of those who cling to the aesthetics and the pragmatics of bound volumes. Baker exposes the subterfuge of cutting budgets, permitting artificial space shortages to be created. He discloses how the false news about the fragility of acidic paper created an atmosphere of crisis in the stacks. He singles out the United States' Library of Congress as, perhaps, the biggest culprit. Since the 1950s, it has been "reformatting" its collection by destroying books, magazines and newspapers after, at first, microfilming and later digitally scanning them at costs far in excess of the price of safely warehousing them for anything like the foreseeable future. He also examines prestigious schools from MIT and Columbia to Berkeley and Stanford and finds them culpable of mismanagement of library resources. Were he to write a sequel, it would be instructive to have him comment on the chief recommendation of the recent Rae review of postsecondary education in Ontario, wherein the former Premier touted, as his pet project, the building of a digital library for Ontario colleges, thus reducing the need to acquire books and periodicals, increasing immeasurably the commitment to a computer word kitchen, and adding a new nail to the coffin of cultural literacy.
The British Library also takes a hit. In 1999, Baker discovered that it held over 2000 bound volumes of priceless American newspapers including the world's only remaining copies of the Chicago Tribune from 1888 to 1958 as well as hundreds of issues from the 1890s of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World (the "central diary of New York City" at the time). Unable to persuade the authorities that these were worth saving, he purchased the material with $26,000 of his retirement savings, started a nonprofit company (the American Newspaper Repository) and stashed the stuff in his old mill. At last word, it costs him close to $30,000 a year to keep it going. Not a Queen's ransom, but enough for a scribblereven one of Baker's talent.
Baker is angry. His anger comes from the depth of the scandal underlying the scam. Under an Orwellian slogan of "destroy to preserve," librarians have made private entrepreneurs rich by ridding themselves of printed pages and relying instead on dubious technologies to act as guardians of the printed page. (Now, boys and girls, can we say "delete key"!) According to Baker, the frenzy to reformat derived from shameless lies about how fast acidic paper would turn to powder, outrageous claims about the rate at which books would eat up existing library space and all the space that could conceivably be created in the future, as well as what he calls a mad hunger for gadgetry coupled with a kind of epic anal-retentivenessa desire to organize, package, schematize as pure information all the written words in the world, and then (in a grand colonic evacuation of the soul) weed, cull and expel all the material detritus of culture, the books that, in all their awkward materiality, romantics used to enjoy holding in their hands.
Apart from a perfect storm of immense gullibility and histrionic endorsements of information technology that was incredibly more expensive than any scheme that would have successfully saved and stored reading material, there was the financial factor. Baker cites the figure of $358 million dollars for a "brittle book" program. These tax dollars funded the "disbinding" (ripping apart) of books to allow them to be microfilmed and then scrapped.
Once in place, a decision-making process was needed to select the books to be destroyed. This process, of course, provides the title of the book. Librarians were instructed to fold the corner of a page back and forth until it broke (some urged the added strategy of giving the resulting "dog ear" a slight tug). If the corner of the page came off, the book was toast. Baker's description of the methodology involved what is prissily called a "barnyard epithet"; his point was, however, well-taken, for responsible library patrons rarely double fold pages on purpose, and Baker believes that the whole idea of determining whether a book should be re-shelved or "pulped" on the degree to which a volume can withstand such mistreatment is simple "craziness".
For his troubles, Baker has been branded a Luddite and a loonie. He could, of course, have pressed his case harder by lessening his reliance on words like "beauty," "tradition," and "primary sources." He understands, in retrospect, that his affinity for the touch, sight and smell not only of books but of those wonderful wooden card catalogues that have now been replaced with screens and keyboards not only cuts no ice with innovators but makes him look eccentric instead. Perhaps he should have followed the money.
Financial windfalls have been falling into the clutches of infotech corporations, microfilm suppliers and newspaper dealers. Big-time librarians plus the usual suspectsNASA, the CIA, hot and cold running consultants and lobbyists, and credulous politicians from the aforementioned Gingrich to William Jefferson Clintonare predictably involved.
Such run-of-the-mill corruption, however, does not seem to affect Baker much. If the pertinent perpetrators were not bartering our collective intellectual heritage, they would probably be lining their pockets with the gains of price gouging some other commodityperhaps armaments, or pharmaceuticals, or petroleum. Nicholson Baker has chosen his particular fight, and he is fighting it doggedly. The battles of the books rage on. Reading this book will encourage that rage in others. It is a worthy wrath.
Anyone who finds Baker's prose to be engaging in this argument over fact will doubtless be impressed they see him turn his hand to fiction once again. Nicholson Baker's most recent novella is Checkpoint, a slim (118-page) conversation between two men on the topic of assassinating George W. Bush. Aspirant book burners, who have almost certainly refrained from reading the book, have been rendered apoplectic. It is just as well. Stunned into silence, save for dyspeptic monosyllables, they miss Baker's dark comedy. They also miss the Checkpoint's subtleties, wit and ultimate support for liberal democracyeven, or especiallyin a time of "craziness"; the political purpose that is present is apt to be lost on those who would profit from the destruction of literature or enlist in the cult-like commitment to malign technological innovation in the name of expensive, inefficient gadgetry and false claims of danger. It was ever thus.
Howard A. Doughty teaches philosophy and evolutionary biology at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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