Anyone who has done much research with old newspapers or magazines in a library has felt the sinking disappointment that comes from learning that a particular item is available only on microfilm. Microfilm, along with its rectangular cousin the microfiche, is frequently cumbersome and hard to read. Sometimes pages or whole sections are missing, or blurry, or faded. Sometimes nearly illegible copies from microfilm printers come through interlibrary loan stamped with the warning “best copy available.” All of this is known to researchers, who generally shrug and accept “best copy available” as unfortunate but unavoidable. Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper reveals what most of these researchers have not realized: that in many cases, the original newspapers and magazines no longer exist. Even with improved technology, better copies of some of these materials will never be available. As libraries have placed their trust in microform copies, the original printed materials have been sold for souvenirs, or simply thrown away.
The central argument of Double Fold is that the trust libraries place in microform is misplaced—and that the trust the public places in its libraries is equally misplaced. Microform, he argues, is vastly inferior to paper originals of newspapers, especially to the lavishly illustrated and tinted newspapers of the early twentieth century. Scholars of history, popular culture, literature, or journalism have a legitimate need (and every reader has the right) to see these early works in their original layout, size, and color, which even the best microforms cannot capture. Furthermore, most microforms in the nation’s libraries are not the best. Even the newer technologies, such as optical scanning, yield a product inferior to ink on paper. Microfilms produced when the technology was new have faded to illegibility because the chemistry of producing and developing the film was inadequately understood. Many libraries have drawers full of microfilms whose illegibility is simply waiting to be discovered by an unsuspecting reader.
Baker makes a convincing case that it is those sleek drawers that draw librarians to microfilm and the other microforms. To replace heavy stacks of large papers, there is a small reel or envelope of lightweight plastic film, easy to ship, easy to store. Libraries like microfilm because it is small, not because it helps readers in any way. As new books are published, every library with permanent walls struggles with decisions about what to keep and what to discard. Microform enables libraries to retain more of their collection in a limited space. It sounds sensible, and this vision has changed the collecting and discarding practices of virtually every library in the United States.
Baker is sympathetic to smaller libraries’ needs for space. What he cannot understand is why, somewhere, room cannot be found for one or two copies of every issue of every newspaper. Surely, he argues, the Library of Congress, charged with being the repository of the nation’s printed record, can accept as its responsibility the keeping of original copies. The cost, he claims, is not at issue: “The library has spent huge sums on microfilming, and its preservation budget is more than eleven million dollars a year—enough to buy, build, and outfit a warehouse the size of a Home Depot, which would hold a century of newsprint.” Rather than creating and purchasing inferior microform copies, the Library of Congress could spend its money on storing and maintaining originals.
Baker describes in unflinching detail the process of making microform copies from old print materials. Before they are placed on library shelves, newspapers and magazines are stitched together and bound into large volumes; the binding keeps the pages flat and the heaviness of a volume keeps air from reaching the pages. Materials may sit safely in this form for decades—until someone decides to make a microform copy. Because it is quicker and more efficient to deal with flat pages, and quicker to cut than to unstitch, the first step in photographing newspaper pages is to cut off the binding and remove the edges. Individual pages are photographed, and the stack of loose sheets is sent off to be pulped. Other libraries, learning...
(The entire section is 1753 words.)