Nicholson Baker is a man with a mission. His pen is a lance with which he delights in skewering those he considers fools, enemies, or just well-meaning people with wrongheaded ideas.
The wrongheaded idea he battles against in this furiously eloquent book is that microfilm is the salvation of space-starved libraries. The idea of throwing away old paper originals of books and newspapers appalls Baker to the point where he has spent a small fortune of his own money to rescue and store some of them himself.
He flatly contradicts many ideas that are pretty much taken for granted by librarians everywhere these days: Old paper documents do not deteriorate with age to anything like the extent popularly believed; microfilm itself is subject to deterioration over time; microfilmed files, especially of newspapers, are often incomplete or unreadable; the supposed space crisis in library storage is not a crisis at all; cost savings achievable by microfilm have been greatly overstated; in library-speak, the word "preservation" is really a euphemism for destruction of valuable old materials. Even the newest technique, optical scanning, is dismissed by Baker as immensely expensive and undependable, especially if the scanning is done from microfilm rather than from original materials.
Baker's personal suggestion for how to handle the inevitable accumulation of old printed materials begins with three words: "Leave them alone." Find offsite storage space if necessary. Stop the wanton butchery of valuable old books and newspapers.
He has obviously done a lot of deep research into things like the deacidification of paper and the economics of document preservation. He presents his findings in prose that glows with a fine, almost contemptuous rage at what he regards as a crime against history. This is no balanced, objective presentation; it is a summons to battle. He loves to play with words, inventing delightful new ones like "gizmology," "digidump," and "biblioectomies," and resorting to grandiose terms like "counterfactualism" when he means untruth or "informationalist" when he means researcher.
Baker drew his book's title from a test developed by some "micro-madman" to assess the brittleness of paper: Take a corner of a book page and fold it over several times. If it breaks off after only a few folds, the book is probably too brittle to survive and should be discarded. Nonsense, says Baker; nobody treats books like that. The true test is simply turning the page as a reader normally would --- and by that test most supposedly dying books would have plenty of life left in them.
There is a large cast of villains in Baker's story, the two chief ones being Verner Clapp, the chief apostle of microfilming at the Library of Congress, and Patricia Battin, a library industry activist who took up the cause post-Clapp. They are depicted as perhaps well-meaning but hopelessly deluded and often deliberately deceptive in manipulating facts and figures to "prove" what Baker feels are spurious conclusions. And Baker takes every opportunity to emphasize that when such people talk about "preservation" via microfilm, they really mean destroying the originals.
Along the way too we meet lovable eccentrics like Dr. Isaiah Deck, who proposed digging up millions of Egyptian mummies and using their linen burial cloths to make paper, and one Fremont Rider, apostle of the Microcard, whose other interests included spiritualism, travel guidebooks, mystery writing, and hotel management.
Nicholson Baker may be dismissed by some as a hopeless romantic seeking to roll back the tide of "progress." Well, maybe so. But he has marshaled an impressive array of evidence to back up his case, and his passion is contagious. One hopes that librarians everywhere will at least give him a hearing. To use his own picturesque language, they will not find Baker's discussion of "crumblement" in books to be in any way "migrainiferous."
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on April 9, 2002
Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper