Nicholson Baker Would Like Us to Be Angry

2013 March


Unpublished paper I wrote in graduate school for a preservation class. It argues that Nicholson Baker's criticism of microfilming newspapers is muddled in misunderstanding and that the more effective argument against this practice is that preservation microfilming often ignores access concerns. The argument I like best in this piece is that use, not just time, is what damages acidic newsprint.

Nicholson Baker would like us to be angry—as he is—over libraries’ treatment of printed material over the last seventy years or so. His masterfully written tale is one of gross negligence, of crazed monsters masked as public servants, and of great tragedy. Baker expends great energy to reveal to the masses this stunning exposé: the purposeful destruction of invaluable public property by our most cherished institutions. Apparently, Baker tells us, our libraries have been secretly and systematically destroying all of their newspaper collections and much more. Yet when readers step back from Baker’s polemic and inquire about the availability of historic newspapers they will be shown to a microfilm machine or an online display. This, Baker insists, does not count. Here lies the crux of the matter, as Baker’s aggressive argument is a conflation of a number of issues surrounding the preservation of library and archival materials. These criticisms—some valid, some not—are mixed together indiscriminately by Baker who, despite his strong rhetoric, has essentially no understanding of the complexity and nuance that surrounds the strategy to preserve by microfilm.

Of course librarians are not infallible, and it does not take a public inquiry to see the many mistakes the field has made over the previous decades. Yet, these mistakes most often are the result of tough decisions and the experimental pioneering of new technology – not a conscious vendetta against books as Baker accuses. In truth, preservation decisions such as microfilming are appraisal decisions. The appraisal process is quite imperfect and is perpetually debated by librarians and archivists. Decisions are far from above outside criticism. Yet, these decisions are made with an informed knowledge of a number of issues, and thus, carry more weight than that of an antagonistic writer with an insatiable love of books (and artificial bindings?) as artifacts. However there are very valid criticisms of the preservation appraisal decisions of the last several decades, namely librarians have almost completely ignored the access consequences in their appraisal decisions. Baker, however, is either too confused or too distracted to raise this criticism.

The focus of the librarians’ actions, Baker brazenly outlines, is brittle paper. Ironically, the innovation of alum-rosin sizing that makes paper acidic and eventually brittle is what made the proliferation of newspapers possible in the first place. Twentieth-century librarians have often decided to reformat old brittle newspapers and books onto microforms with the goal of making them available permanently. In order to make the process more cost-effective, filming often required disbinding (to hasten the process) and destruction (to save storage costs).

Baker protests that the disassembling and trashing of the books is not only unnecessary, but irreconcilable with libraries’ mission. He does not identify this as the preservation of the informational content and the loss of the physical content. In fact, he seems to think that these values are inseparable, stubbornly arguing that the old paper is not deteriorating, that microfilm does not effectively reproduce the text, and that microfilm does deteriorate. Baker finds that, “…wood-pulp newspapers of fifty and a hundred years ago are, contrary to incessant library propaganda, often surprisingly well preserved.”1 Yet, despite Bakers discovery, brittle paper does deteriorate, albeit very slowly. Primarily, it is use of brittle paper that causes deterioration, not just time – and thus we can see the contrasting perspectives. Librarians most often manage the material that is used the most and we can see them saddened by the destruction of poor paper, reluctantly letting at-risk material be used, and continuously seeking any way to make the information more permanent. Baker, on the other hand, opens up bound volumes of newspapers to see the intact—and likely rarely used—pages. While it is true that the deterioration process can be a very slow one, Baker will not find the copies that have failed, for obvious reasons. Librarians want material to be available for a large volume of use, both careful and careless, for a very long time. This is a mission that brittle paper often cannot fulfill.

Our polemist also points out that microforms are often not up to this task as well. First, he charges that they do serve as adequate surrogates for the original, failing to reproduce images and making the text difficult to make out. He charges that significant amounts of texts are lost in the process. He then details the various problems with different types of microform, like vinegar syndrome, before declaring even modern archival-quality microfilm insufficient. Some of the lesser microfilm, he complains, will not stand 175 degree temperatures, but he fails to mention the effect those conditions would have on brittle paper.2 While Baker points out that microforms—particularly older types—are not truly permanent either, they do hold up much better than poor paper with significant use in a good environment. Also, it is important to note that is easier to provide a good preservation environment for a run of newspapers on microfilm than on paper.

Baker is also unnecessarily critical of film being used as a stopgap before digitization. He states that, “…attempts to scan the page-images of newspapers from old microfilm have not worked well—and will never work well—because microfilm itself is often at the squint-to-make-out level.”3 However modern filming with sufficient quality control produces images that can reproduce the text quite well. Microfilm readers, however, are more problematic. Contrary to Baker’s belief, microfilm to 1s and 0s is now quite commonplace, and cheaper than scanning from the originals. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library has problems with extensive use of its collections. Repeated handling has done permanent damage to both good paper and acidic paper. Until recently, the preservation microfilm that has been performed over the years has gone unused as patrons preferred the originals. Now they are undergoing an extensive project to digitize multiple collections from microfilm. The images being produced are not preservation-quality digital images, yet the increased access with online availability have made these digital images preferable for researchers.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Baker’s book is his use of harsh hyperbolic language and unfair depictions of librarians. The perceptive reader will realize that powerful language does not replace evidence and historians will be disgusted with Baker’s appalling over-the-top demonization. Here we have “innocently trusted,” public servants on a campaign of, “methodical eradication,” “general devastation,” and, “annihilation,” that has, “…strip-mined a hundred and twenty years of its history.”4 Did Baker think readers would embrace the notion that our libraries are run by a conspiring cadre (who apparently think of themselves as movie studio moguls) who, “shamelessly lied,” and love, “petty vandalism”?5 While he avoids outwardly proclaiming a conspiracy he certainly preys upon its major themes, mongering that, “None of this epochal activity, in which the Library of Congress began its slow betrayal of an unknowing nation, was published in contemporary annual reports.” Yet, a page later he states that it did list the newspapers in itsInformation Bulletin and never tries to reconcile how conniving librarians so unabashedly reveal their aims elsewhere.6 In is discussion of Cold War librarians he often juxtaposes random examples of craziness with library experiments as a key part of his argument. While Fremont Rider offers his (admittedly unscientific) estimates of library growth we are told that Rider also had written science fiction.7 Baker states that he is unsure of whether William James Barrow actually believed his simulated aging estimates, then cites an interviewee who states that many of these numbers, “…were made to get people’s attention.”8 This is a duplicitous way of arguing without evidence: perhaps Baker actually believed his argument; some would say he was writing to get people’s attention. To quote Baker: “This is of course utter horseshit and craziness.”9

Our polemist always avoids nuanced and empathetical examinations of the figures in question, instead choosing to suggest purposeful maliciousness. The past is a foreign country, as they say, and it is exceedingly difficult to understand the culture and intellectual environment in which decisions were made. Baker fails to comprehend the positivism and faith in technology that pervaded the minds of librarians decades ago. While that does not excuse their poor judgments, it does mean that those decisions must be critiqued within that context. Isolating those choices, arguing without evidence, and assuming malicious intent is disingenuous and duplicitous. The librarians of the Cold War were driven by the immense fear that the books will be gone – the same fear as Nicholson Baker.

There are some very valid criticisms preservation decisions of Cold War librarians, if only Baker recognized them. The most important failing has been the ignorance of access in preservation decisions. Despite the assertions of many forward-thinking librarians in the 1950s, microfilm is not nearly as effective a medium as paper books. While film effectively captures intellectual content, it acts as a tremendous barrier because it is more difficult to use. Many patrons such as Baker will be disappointed if the material they seek is only available on microfilm – some will seek another avenue rather than deal with the time-consuming, uncomfortable, and difficult-to-read microfilm reader. Microfilm cannot be checked out and read in the comfort of a researcher’s own home at his or her own schedule. Librarians (and archivists) have yet again focused on their holdings rather than their people.

Yet, dependence on microforms has not led to the apocalypse that Baker asserts. Microfilm has not, “…undermined American historiography far more seriously than anything that alum-tormented newsprint could possibly have done to itself.”10 On the contrary, these lost newspapers are still the most widely-used sources for American historians. Changes in historical theory have ended newspapers’ place as central pieces of evidence, yet one would be hard pressed to find a recent major work of American history that does not cite newspapers in some manner. They are comprehensive, widely accessible because of digitization, and good for context and cross-referencing. Contrary to what Baker thinks, academic historians have no time or value for reading newspapers, “…page by page month by month for pleasure…”11 Every academic historian will be laugh at Baker’s assertion. They care little about “…gorgeously drippy art-nouveau graphics,” or “elaborately hand lettered ornamental headlines,” unless researching newspaper art history.12 Whatever Baker thinks, that interest is so obscure that it hardly registers on archivists’ long list of appraisal priorities.

In some cases, microfilm reproductions can me more accessible and more useful than the originals. Baker decries Barrow’s testing on the works of Bayard Taylor and William Cooper Prime, stating that, “Some of these books would be nice to have now…”13 While he would like us to think that these texts are lost, travel writings like these were so popular in the 1850s that one still stumbles upon them in old bookstores. Multiple copies are digitized and available with keyword search on Google Books or as ebooks from the Project Gutenberg. In one case a graduate student14 researching the topic preferred a physical book. Luckily, facsimile reproductions from microfilm are cheaply purchased online and wholly readable on acid-free paper and good bindings. In one case, the graduate student purchased a copy of George William Curtis’s The Howaji in Syria for under $5 and unexpectedly received an 1865 original Harper & Brothers copy. The brittle paper and poor binding made this copy fairly unusable and definitively lesser than the reproductions.

Baker wants to keep every original published work, including each edition and alteration. Not only is he unable to grasp the sheer physics of a research library keeping every published work, he is seeking a comprehensive record of knowledge that simply does not exist. Preservation appraisal is not only about intrinsic value, but intellectual content, accessibility, feasibility, and a number of other concerns that Baker has not taken the time to understand despite interviewing scores of librarians and archivists. Intrinsic or artificial value seems simple, and objective to Baker, but it is nothing of the sort. Like any other aspect of culture, it is different for everyone, changes routinely, and often dramatically. Conservator Jane Smith might value the texture of 17th century paper, but the paper’s contemporaries certainly did not.15 There are very real and valid criticisms within Baker’s rant. Too bad he does not understand them.


  1. Nicholson Baker, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (New York: Random House, 2001), 5. 

  2. Ibid., 43. 

  3. Ibid., 16. 

  4. Ibid, 13, 16, 16, 18, 20. 

  5. Ibid., 27, 41, 79. 

  6. Ibid., 32, 33. 

  7. Ibid., 77. 

  8. ibid., 143. 

  9. Ibid., 157. 

  10. Ibid., 147. 

  11. Ibid., 39. 

  12. Ibid., 4. 

  13. Ibid., 154. 

  14. Me. 

  15. Baker, 150.