Double Fold, Nicholson Baker

Vintage, 2001, 370 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-375-72621-7

For someone who spends so much time tinkering with computers and using the Internet, I have a decidedly classical relationship with paper. I love books, I print digital stuff for archiving, I think libraries are holy places, I like the feel of good paper and I can do wonders with cardstock, scissors and a fancy printer. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever made your own book. Uh-huh.) While ebooks are a wonderful thing and have undeniable data advantages over dead-tree versions of the same content, my dead-tree-parts collection is one of my favourite things in the whole world. No data storage backup concerns; no anxiety about the quality of the digital capture; no usability trouble in case of power failure or electromagnetical pulse. I just love paper.

Double Fold is a book for people like me and Nicholson Baker is a guy I like.

Anyone with a college-level education is probably familiar with microfiche. Those tiny black-and-white reproductions are often the only way to consult past issues of newspapers in university libraries. Even as the magical age of digital information advances, there is still plenty of content locked away on those tiny plastic sheets. Anyone who’s used them is also aware of their deficiencies: those muddy, often-unfocused black-and-white reproduction of the original content can often be a headache to read. It would be so much better to be able to consult the original… but where can you put all of those newspapers?

The truth is that several large libraries, until the 1950s, actually did keep, bind and store paper archives of newspapers. Then microfiche came in and promised incredible space savings at very little cost for “the same amount of information”. And so went the bound newspaper paper archives: Sold to the highest bidders or thrown in the trash when they weren’t simply left to rot in damp basements. In several cases, there are no paper copies left of several important newspapers.

That in itself is not a very pleasant thing. But as far as Double Fold goes, it’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Baker spends the rest of the book detailing how, for now more than fifty years, American libraries have vigorously pursued policies that led to the destruction of priceless documents, all in the name of ill-defined conservation, space savings and unfounded worries about the durability of even pulp paper. (The CIA is involved, believe it or not.) It’s a fantastic story, even more so when Baker puts his retirement funs on the line to preserve a few historically-important bound newspaper runs. And that’s not even mentioning Egyptian mummies and explosive de-acidification processes!

Double Fold is as much a documentary as an essay against the incalculable damages brought by short-term thinking in libraries. Books destroyed to make imperfect, often incomplete microfiche copies. Perfectly adequate books discarded over ludicrous “double fold” testing results. The systematic elimination of priceless pieces of history. An all-out war on paper. Even sceptics are likely to be moved as Baker suggests, at the very least, a smoother gradient between the roles occupied by librarians and archivists.

For bookish fellows such as myself, Double Fold is a significant book. Baker does a superb job at revealing the seedy underbelly of libraries, presents exquisitely-researched details (the “notes” section takes up nearly a fifth of the book) and manipulates his audience like a puppet master. It’s informative, frequently outrageous, packed with fascinating details and likely to inspire either tears, disbelieving moans and a fair bit of anger. It deservedly won a National Critic Board award for best non-fiction book of 2002 and it’s likely to inspire both debate and action everywhere it’s read.

Infuriating, fascinating and shocking at times, Double Fold easily gets my recommendation as a must-read if you’re even slightly interested in books. I’d love to press a copy in the hands of every librarian on planet Earth, but in the meantime I’ll be content in shouting out its praise over my web site. If it can eventually save even one book from too-hasty destruction, then it’ll be a job well-done.

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