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A Question of Trust

By RICHARD POYNDER

When novelist Nicholson Baker’s book Double Fold was published 2 years ago, librarians were outraged. Many still are. But has the time now come to view the book as a wake-up call for libraries to engage more actively with the public?

In writing Double Fold, Baker won few friends in the library community. This is hardly surprising. While his primary targets for criticism were the Library of Congress and The British Library, the book was widely viewed as an unprovoked attack on the profession at large. As Barbara Quint put it in her June 2001 book review in Searcher, “According to Mr. Baker’s book, librarians have been, at best, criminally incompetent and, at worst, diabolically malevolent.”

Specifically, Baker charged librarians with destroying or discarding large numbers of valuable newspapers and books as part of the deacidification and reformatting programs that were devised to deal with fragile and “brittle” paper. Not only did he characterize these programs as incompetent and wasteful, he concluded that the quality of the microfilm used to preserve the content was so poor that the originals have often outlasted the film meant to replace them. Far better, he argued, to spend library budgets on storing originals in an optimal way than engage in expensive, wasteful exercises in preservation.

While much of the destruction described in Double Fold had ceased by the time it was published (and microfilm standards had improved) Baker maintains that his book retains an important message.

As he puts it today: “I was trying to tell the history of the preservation movement—why and how the Library of Congress’ disturbing deacidificational process preoccupied so many well-meaning people and cost so much and why so much federal money that could have gone to the paying of librarians and the storage of the fine things in their care went instead into extremely expensive microfilming projects that destroyed to ‘preserve.’ One of the reasons to take a look at history, recent history, is to find out what actually happened and in doing so to avoid the mistakes in the future.”

Vandals in the Stacks?

Librarians have responded to Baker with considerable vigor by writing letters and articles in defense of the profession and holding meetings and conferences. Last August, Richard Cox, a professor of information sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, published Vandals in the Stacks? in response.

Unfortunately, the refutations penned by the library community have struggled to counter the claims made in Double Fold, not least because many have tended to address other librarians rather than the public at large.

Certainly, librarians and archivists appear to be the intended audience of Cox’s book. His main argument seems to be that since Baker is not a librarian and therefore doesn’t understand the issues, he should stop moaning and let the professionals get on with it.

“I do not want to denigrate the debate into merely a matter of ‘I am a professional and Nicholson Baker is an amateur,’” he writes. “Yet, the essence of being an expert is in mastering a specialized body of knowledge and of using that knowledge for a public good.”

In other words: The public should trust us. We know what we’re doing.

Trust, however, is now in doubt. Certainly, Double Fold has tested the public’s faith in libraries. Most people, had they given thought to the matter, would have assumed libraries were not in the business of destroying books and newspapers. Now they’re not so sure. “Perhaps our preservation administrators and similar library honchos need a daily reaffirmation of their own Hippocratic oath: First and last, do no harm,” concluded Michael Dirda in his review of Double Fold for The Washington Post.

“We do have to trust librarians, just as we have to trust doctors and lawyers and all professional people,” Baker says. “And when they violate our trust, as happened spectacularly in the case of newspaper collections at the Library of Congress and at The British Library, we have to say so and look into the whys and the wherefores.”

Echoing Cox, Abby Smith, director of programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources, says the problem is that Baker does not sufficiently understand the whys and wherefores enough to judge. “He doesn’t know very much about how libraries work, how they are funded, and what their core missions are,” she says. “He has extremely high expectations of the role of libraries in society, and he shares those very high expectations with most people.”

It is this, perhaps, that makes Double Fold an important book. It has drawn attention to public confusion about the wider purpose of libraries. Additionally, it has done this at a time when the digital revolution is set to make significant changes to the way libraries work and considerably complicate the preservation task. Rather than shooting the messenger, perhaps librarians should be seeking to better educate the public and win back its trust.

Library or Archive?

Above all, says Janet Gertz, director for preservation at Columbia University Libraries (but speaking in a personal capacity), Baker confuses the missions of libraries and archives. “Archives exist to preserve for the long-term, specific subsets of the published and unpublished human record. Libraries exist to collect mostly published materials and to make them readily available for use by as many people as possible. They are not archives responsible for keeping every single item forever.”

Baker rejects this as a false dichotomy, pointing out that libraries often fulfill both functions. “Some critics seem to be fascinated by the idea that I don’t understand what an ‘archive’ really is,” he says. “This is goofy. My book is about what happened at big libraries, mostly over the past 50 years. Archives in general concern themselves with one-of-a-kind unpublished records, while libraries concern themselves with books and book-like items. But there is a great deal of blurring between the two tasks.”

The point to bear in mind, he adds, is: “If libraries don’t keep what we as a culture publish and read, who will? Who else will do that primary task? Every country needs a set of institutions—call them national libraries, call them archives, call them repositories, it doesn’t really matter—who err on the side of prudence, who are somewhat indiscriminate in their desire to amass and hold on to the published record.”

Maybe, says Jacob Nadal, acting head of preservation at Indiana University Libraries’ E. Lingle Craig Preservation Laboratory, but the reality is that U.S. libraries don’t have a national responsibility. “Libraries are almost always part of some parent organization—a town, a university, a company, a law firm—and we have made that organization our point of accountability. To be blamed by someone outside of that community for failing to serve a need that our community may have never expressed to us and then held nationally accountable for this is strange indeed.”

Even the Library of Congress, says Abby Smith, “is not specifically mandated or funded to do the kind of preservation work that he [Baker] expects it to.” She adds: “We don’t have a national library in the U.S. and we don’t have someone looking out for American imprints in the way, say, the BnF [Bibliothèque nationale de France] keeps track of French imprints. We are way too decentralized.”

But wait a minute. The ALA’s Web site describes the Library of Congress precisely as “the national library of the United States.” And according to Guy Lamolinara, confidential assistant to the associate librarian for strategic initiatives at the Library of Congress, the library’s mission statement “requires us to ‘sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.’”

I’m no librarian, but is this not what Baker calls for? True, he wants more original material preserved than librarians feel able to store, but in doing so is he really asking the Library of Congress to go beyond its own stated mission? Could it be that librarians are transmitting a confused message to the public?

In fact, the Library of Congress’ mission sounds somewhat more comprehensive than that of most national libraries. According to Helen Shenton, head of collection care at The British Library, the BL’s function is [only] “to preserve and care for the national published archive.”

It’s precisely because its mission is limited in this way, explains BL spokesperson Bart Smith, that in 1999, the library sold a large collection of newspapers. Baker publicly deplored this sale in Double Fold. The newspapers concerned, Smith explains, “were foreign in origin and were originally acquired by the (then) library of the British Museum. They were acquired in an era when the museum library felt able to collect material from all over the world, and the long-term problems relating to storage and preservation were not appreciated.”

Maybe Baker’s expectations are far too high. Maybe he and the public at large are confused about the purpose and role of libraries. But are librarians being sufficiently articulate in explaining matters to them? Circumscribing preservation efforts to national boundaries does not seem very logical in today’s global environment. Should there not be an international cooperative program to better coordinate these activities and share the load?

Artifactual Value

Tellingly, as the vituperation and expletives fade away, some librarians are ready to concede that Baker may have a point, although they’re still smarting from what they view as a gratuitous attack. “I think Baker’s concerns about the fate of newspapers and print artifacts in general are very important, and I essentially agree with them,” says Nadal. “I think it’s unfortunate that he chose to approach this by writing a polemic against librarians.

“Microfilm, digital, and paper facsimiles all have their own successes, failures, and fiscal realities, but none have obviated the value of original items,” adds Nadal. “Individuals, many of them librarians, are bibliophiles to be sure, but the libraries are generally more infophilic. We love having information available and naturally look for better ways to achieve that.”

Have librarians perhaps placed too much emphasis on providing access and too little on the artifactual value of the original media? What, in any case, do we mean by “access”?

“Sometimes it’s sufficient to have a Gutenberg e-text, sometimes we’d like a paperback, sometimes we want the particular edition that Keats may have read as he worked on a sonnet,” argues Baker. “There are all kinds of access, and physical access—having the physical book or journal at a library ready at hand near you—is a wonderful boon to scholarship and to the life of the mind. Remote access—electronically or via interlibrary-loaned spools of microfilm—is wonderful in a different way, but it’s wrong to insist that remote access makes direct physical access meaningless or unnecessary in all cases.”

But if Baker has reminded us of the importance of preserving original materials, how do we establish what should be collected? After all, points out Cox, “We cannot save everything, not just because there is too much of it (there is), but because only a portion possesses value sufficient for justifying the costs for maintaining the materials.”

According to Cox, the “hard and informed decisions” have to be made in the interest of the public good. However, the deeper question is: Who decides what has sufficient value and who defines the public good? Cox clearly thinks it should be librarians, saying haughtily, “It may be that some historians and other humanities scholars are the last true romantics when it comes to using original newspapers.”

The Public Good

What Cox forgets, surely, is that the scholars he so easily dismisses are some libraries’ customers. The greatest danger any profession faces is to lose sight of the public it serves or to forget that the public good cannot be determined by a single group of professionals alone.

While Cox acknowledges the need for archivists and librarians to “explain to the public and policy-makers what it is they do,” he portrays this as a one-way process. In reality, shouldn’t it be two-way? “I don’t think we have yet learned enough about the compact between the user of library information and the providers of library information,” concedes Abby Smith.

However, Smith adds, library users have been just as negligent as librarians. “The public has a responsibility to seek information and stay informed. If there were people who understood the artifactual value of newspapers, they were not vocal at the time, and that includes Mr. Baker.”

What seems clear is that libraries need to engage more actively with the public—a process that will require listening as well as talking. Deborah Perotti, library preservation coordinator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (but speaking in a personal capacity), points out: “Librarians need to respond to criticism because it is a form of evaluation. Evaluation supplies an opportunity to assess performance and, on the basis of user needs, make changes.”

In fact, libraries have more to gain than lose here, since an informed public could help them lobby for the additional resources they clearly need. Gertz says: “More publicity is needed about the struggle libraries face simply to remain open, let alone collect widely and preserve everything they have ever owned. If the public were more aware of what libraries do, they might be more willing to support them.”

Indeed, while it obviously hurts to be hectored and pilloried by a nonprofessional, we shouldn’t forget that Baker is a very accomplished wordsmith who can attract the media’s attention. Should he not be co-opted to the cause? He is, after all, a library enthusiast. “I wasn’t trying to undermine the profession of librarianship,” Baker says. “It’s a great and noble profession, one of the most important jobs there is. I was trying to get the profession back on track.”

Public or Private

There’s another issue here: If libraries shed original material excessively, might they unwittingly conspire in the erosion of the public domain?

As Baker points out in Double Fold, UMI/ProQuest already possesses “a near monopoly on the reproduction rights for the chief primary sources of twentieth-century history.” In addition to 20,000 periodical and newspaper titles and the Early English Books Collection (nearly every book published in English between 1475 and 1700), the company holds copies of 130,000 out-of-print books and almost 1 million dissertations. Meanwhile, Readex, a division of NewsBank, holds most of the 18th-century titles in a collection called Early American Newspapers.

Not only are these companies able to charge high prices for the end product, but since microfilm is normally subject to copyright, they’re able to exert proprietary interests over material that (in the case of anything published before the 1930s at least) belongs in the public domain.

As ProQuest Information and Learning attorney Janet Driver explains, where copyright exists in microfilm, it subsists “from the date of creation of the microfilm master, not the date of creation of the underlying material being duplicated. Since microfilm editions are generally created by our employees, the term of the copyright would be the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation.”

This does not mean that the copyright on the original material is revived, adds Driver, but simply that reproduction of the underlying material from the microfilm is prohibited. “If a researcher (or anyone) wants to use the content and reproduces it from a source other than the copyrighted microfilm, they can.”

This, however, assumes that other sources remain available. While the works of authors like Shakespeare and Mark Twain will undoubtedly always remain in multiple print copies, other works will not. As Lamolinara concedes, many U.S. newspapers now exist only in microfilm, and many of these have been produced by commercial enterprises.

Moreover, if libraries increasingly replace original material with microfilm, this will undoubtedly stimulate further microfilming, in turn giving rise to new discards in a potentially vicious cycle of diminishment. Over time, microfilm could become the sole source of more and more material, much of which will be privately owned. For Baker, this “is central to the whole question of why some public institution has to be charged with keeping originals.”

Some, however, see little risk. Such a scenario, says Brian Baird, a preservation librarian at the University of Kansas, is “potentially real” but unlikely. Besides, he says: “There is little difference between what UMI does now and what other publishers do now. If a publisher prints a book, they have a monopoly on that book, and they can charge what the market will bear.”

Nevertheless, having established themselves as champions of the public domain in recent years, librarians would surely be chagrined to face a future charge of having unknowingly conspired in the privatization of our cultural heritage. It’s worth noting that no national or international system currently exists to help libraries establish whether another institution holds a duplicate original before they discard a book or newspaper series. However, the United States Newspaper Program is at least attempting to locate and catalog extant issues of U.S. newspaper titles.

As we enter the digital age and more and more of the published record is migrated to the digital environment, preservation issues will become ever more complex. After all, for the foreseeable future at least, digital data will be far more fragile than even the most brittle paper. And as proprietary interests in information increase, ownership issues will surely intensify.

Given the preservation implications of this transition to digital media, Double Fold should perhaps be viewed as a reminder to librarians to engage with the public not just to explain what they’re doing, but to get folks to buy into it. This matter is now very much a question of trust.

This article has been reprinted in its entirety from the July/August 2003 issue of Information Today with the permission of Information Today, Inc., 143 Old Marlton Pike, Medford, NJ 08055. 609/654-6266, http://www.infotoday.com.

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