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  May 29, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

Print Hound

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper
by Nicholson Baker
353 pages, $25.95 (hardcover)
published by Random House

IT'S A FAIR BET THAT NICHOLSON BAKER WON'T BE INVITED to the next gathering of the American Library Association. His new book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House), is an impassioned attack on the wholesale vandalism he thinks is running riot in nation's premier libraries; it will likely win him few friends among the Dewey Decimal set. For Baker, newspapers are irreplaceable windows onto the American past. But to librarians, he claims, they are nothing but ungainly fodder taking up space better used for other purposes. In his book, he argues that librarians' misguided enthusiasm for microfilm and digitization has led them to destroy valuable original documents. Baker charges these librarians with an unhealthy mania for efficiency, one that comes at the cost of nothing less than our culture heritage.

Many of Baker's critics responded warmly to his jeremiad. John Maxwell Hamilton, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, praised his effort: "Baker is a diligent, thorough reporter with an eye for the quirky, all very much in the mode of The New Yorker...Double Fold is an important book. And even if Baker could have made his argument more succinctly, one must admire the depth of his earnestness." Indeed, Maxwell notes, Baker put his money where his mouth his:"With pledges of his own money and foundation funding, he created the American Newspaper Repository to purchase a large collection of newspapers of which the British museum was unburdening itself."

In the New York Times Book Review, David Gates' enthusiasm was evident, to say the least: "It took me days to read all of Nicholson Baker's Double Fold not because it's a slog—far from it—but because it got me, as he intended, hopping mad. Get through a few paragraphs, up out of the chair, go do something for a few hours, then back at it. I felt like thrusting it under every sentient nose I could find; but I'd repeatedly scrawled ''Whew!,'' ''Yikes!'' and ''Jesus!'' in the margins, sometimes two and three times a page..."

Writing in The New Republic, Alexander Star's praise was measured: "Baker's book is an entertaining and in large part convincing expose of the misdeeds of librarians. Microfilm certainly failed to live up to is promise, and it may have done more harm than good. It is not foolish to worry that close reading and idle browsing, as well as actual books, will be squeezed out by all the modems and power cords." Still, Star had some caveats: "Baker sometime lets his passion get the better of him. Even an ardent bibliophile ought to be able to distinguish between a book guillotine and the other kind....Sometimes, one imagines and even hopes, ephemera are just ephemera." Robert Darnton of The New York Review of Books agreed with Baker's central arguments while urging restraint on him: "[he] gives full vent to what he calls his 'prosecutorial urge" He stacks the evidence in his favor, not by distorting it, but by rhetorical devices, such as putting quotations out of context and splicing comments into them...but in his determination to damn some of the county's most eminent librarians, Baker sometimes overstates his case. Space is a serious problem for librarians, not one that they attempt to conjure away by 'demonization' or by giving free reign to some psychic loathing of paper."

Surely the most impassioned of all Baker's reviews came from the pen of The Weekly Standard's Stephen Schwartz, who chalked the whole mess up to a sinister left wing conspiracy. "Let's be clear," Schwartz fulminated, "A cadre of leftist academics and politicized librarians have created an Orwellian memory hole down which our collective knowledge of a more civil, even 'progressive,' American past is being consigned, and that is indeed a matter for great alarm. American libraries, in fact, increasingly resemble intellectual ruins, in which traditional literature and study are giving way to something not very different from video games, and it is disgraceful." But Schwartz doesn't let Baker off the hook, and harangues him, too, for being a left winger "Baker himself is a minor participant in the promotion of historical forgetting about which he complains."

Matthew Price

Critics cited:
John Maxwell Hamilton, The Los Angeles Times Book review
David Gates, The New York Times Book Review
Alexander Star, The New Republic
Robert Darnton, The New York Review of books
Stephen Schwartz, The Weekly Standard

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