Destroying Books In Order To Save Them: Nicholson Baker’s “Double Fold”

I finally read Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, 2001). Wow! To me the compelling cautionary point of this book is that the siren song of “beyond physical books” has been playing to libraries for over 50 years. There were microfilm and micro-fiche fads around replacing printed works long before eBooks; fads pushed by meretricious vendors and starry-eyed techno-enthusiasts, often at the expense of the mission and function of libraries and library users.
Having worked on the Paperless Office (sic) since 1985, I certainly appreciate that paper has staying power. While it’s nevertheless obvious (at least to me) that digital representations are going to eventually displace most paper texts, we should be clear about the plusses of the incumbent solution for representing human knowledge, and realistic about the particular situations in which digital alternatives will be preferable in the near-term. Above all we should avoid over-stating the case for digital publishing and the digital library of the future. Adobe is painfully aware of the inflated expectations that accompanied the eBook hype wave of the late 1990’s, but my humility is certainly increased by learning about the microfilm hype wave that began back in the 1940’s. The thought of human knowledge being irretrievably lost due to bumbled conversion is also sobering.
Baker seemingly stretches in depicting a vast conspiracy of librarians and vendors destroying physical books. Paper does deteriorate, even if not literally into dust. And I have heard repeatedly from librarians that they simply do not have enough room for their physical holdings, which tend naturally to expand to fill the space available. As Baker quotes a librarian “there is never enough space”. He does not dispute a study showing libraries spend $1.50 per book per year on physical storage (in 1985 dollars). While as an avid reader I would be happy if library budgets were such that constrained space was a non-issue, what I hear from librarians is more along the lines of “for every volume we acquire, we have to get rid of another”. No wonder that the promise of miniaturization was seized upon by many in the library community.
My challenge to us all is to focus on the user experience. What Baker only obliquely refers to is the reality that microfilm,’s major failings are that it’s difficult to access and much less satisfying to read than paper. Despite his quibbles, it appears that microfilm did deliver the essential benefits sought (saving space, lowering storage costs, and reducing the risk of losing information). The attendant loss of usability and accessibility was what really made microfilm a pseudo-solution. I believe we have to work very hard to make sure that digital books are usable and accessible – ideally to deliver improvement in these areas. Paper’s great but the book is no more the zenith of usability than the traditional photographic print is the zenith of depicting an image. Digital technology brings new capabilities, and we should aim to foster creation of new kinds of compelling content, not just “shovelware” that reduces library storage costs and increases their effective holdings (though these more prosaic needs are real, and are beginning to stimulate eBook adoption).
Anyway, despite its paranoiac tendencies, Double Fold is stupendously good writing. Baker’s obsession with details makes for interesting but somewhat bizarre fiction, but transforms what could have been a dry read on library book (non-)preservation into engaging entertainment. Reading in the Preface that this was an expansion of a New Yorker essay I admit I considered looking up the magazine piece rather than diving in to an over-inflated 350 pages. Well, Nicholson Baker could certainly have made his points with far less prose, but so could Paul Prudhomme serve up smaller portions with less sauce. Recommended.

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