Peter Heinegg

In our Amazon.com, Borders ’n’ Barnes & Noble world we (non-academics at least) no longer pay much attention to libraries. When was the last time you got worked up over anything connected with a library (shortened hours, confusing online catalogues)? Well, for many Americans all that is about to change with this brilliant, bitter, fabulously knowledgeable exposé, something like a cross between Silent Spring and The Dunciad. Baker, a novelist perhaps best known for his comic-erotic fantasy Vox, has launched a stunning assault on the major institutional librarians who for the past 50 years have been microfilming books (c. 1 million?) and newspapers and then trashing the originals with a zeal worthy of the (endlessly maligned) Caliph Omar.

What were they thinking, those obscure (until impaled like moths on Baker’s satirical needles) apparatchiks, people like Fremont Rider, Verner Clapp, William Welsh, Patricia Battin, Michael Lesk et al.? That libraries had to double their shelf space every 16 years or drown in the flood of newly printed matter? (They didn’t.) That, because of alum sizing, books were crumbling into dust? (They weren’t.) That microfilm would save endangered materials? (It wouldn’t; it was expensive, unreliable and utterly perishable.) That digitizing was any better? (It wasn’t.) They combined bad science, bad judgment and a cultural insensitivity so acute one might think they had never been bibliophiles, just bureaucrats. (Precisely.) Take, for instance, the infamous double fold rule in Baker’s title: any book with a page whose edges break off when folded back and forth (three or four or five times) and given a gentle tug is classified as brittle and so in immediate need of replacement. That is, it has to be guillotined, its binding chopped off so that it can be laid flat, photographedand pulped. This, Baker explodes, is of course utter horseshit and nonsense. A leaf of a book is a semi-pliant mechanism. It was made for non-acute curves, not for origami. If you wanted to test the effective strength of a watch spring or a Slinky, would you bend a short segment of it back and forth till it broke?

The only librarians really saving books, it seems, are the small and underfunded conservation teams who rebind, repair and lovingly restore books-as-artifacts in libraries-as-museums. Preservation, on the other hand, which gets the big bucks from government and foundations, turns out to mean destroying actual books (after panic-mongering about their imminent disintegration).

Baker, it must be admitted, tells us far more about the technical side of his subject than most of us need to know. His book could have been, and surely will be, reduced to a narrower compass in future debates. But he takes such delight in tracking down and zapping the nearsighted custodians of our past that it becomes infectious. Consider the loony experiments with diethyl zinc (DEZ), one of the most pyrophoric (i.e., flammable) substances in the universe: Inspector Clouseau-like chemists, aided and abetted by sober-sided savants like Daniel Boorstin, spent millions of dollars trying to deacidify paper with the stuff, but managed only to blow up and burn down laboratories and leave books wrinkled, discolored and foul-smelling. In the face of such folly, it’s hard to resist Baker’s impassioned plea: Leave the books alone, I say, leave them alone, leave them alone.

In the end, the most impressive part of Baker’s case could be his willingness to put his money where his acerbic mouth is. In September 1999 he spent practically everything he had, liquidated his retirement account and remortgaged his house so that he could save (and store) 6,400 bound volumes of American newspapers about to be jettisoned by the British Library. Microfilming, he knew, does a lousy job on newspapers: it suppresses color, erases fine details and skips whole pages and even editions (when more than one is published on a given day), thus expunging history. It’s a pain to use; and the originals, as always, are precious.

Double Fold should rattle more than a few dovecotes in libraries up and down the country. Actually, it already has. The librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, recently told The New York Times that the news of his institution’s war on books has left him shocked. Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, admits that we don’t have a national policy that guides preservationwhich is putting it mildly. Who knows, Laura Bush may soon be weighing in on the issue. Even a conservative First Lady-librarian couldn’t object to Baker’s concluding modest proposals: 1) Publicly funded libraries should have to publish lists of what they discard; 2) The Library of Congress should warehouse (in call-number order) everything it doesn’t want or can’t hold on site; 3) Various U.S. libraries should keep all current newspapers in bound form; and 4) The N.E.H. should fund only non-destructive microfilming and digital scanning.

Few readers of Baker’s splendid polemic will think that goes too far.

Peter Heinegg is a professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.