Novelist and literary essayist Nicholson Baker once again has caused a stir in the library world, this time attacking the sale and/or destruction of original newspapers once they have been microfilmed. Ably and eloquently arguing his case, Baker is still wrong while succeeding in raising public awareness about the care of basic documentary sources and in forcing librarians and archivists alike to re-think basic assumptions and practices. My essay responds to what I discern as Baker's four main points - a lie foisted upon the public about the care of the newspapers, the insidious destruction of original newspapers, the resultant loss of trust by the public in libraries and archives, and a set of wrong priorities leading to the misguided microfilming and destruction of the newspapers. My essay also suggests that we should expect more such public debates as the developing Digital Age brings more intense concerns for original books, archives, and other documents.
The Big Lie
A Modern Paper Drive?
A Loss of Trust?
Last summer, Nicholson Baker, novelist and literary essayist, struck again at America's libraries. The attack was witty, charming, and full of pathos, and it was obviously the product of one who feels deeply and passionately about libraries and their lot in society. For an educator teaching in a library school, his long essay on the destruction of newspapers in favor of microfilm was a welcome diversion. After all, we all had thought these newspapers were being saved as a result of microfilming projects and other efforts usually involving their reformatting. Now we learned, in Baker's convincing diatribe, that a great sacrilege was being committed on our cultural heritage by the very people who were supposed to be its guardians. It seemed like a good story, and Baker is, by craft and predilection, a storyteller . Of course, we read with interest.
Nicholson Baker is already well known to librarians because of his previous article on the destruction of original card catalogs as automated systems replaced them , another bit of manna from heaven for an educator trying to stimulate thinking by his students about even the most cherished assumptions. His plea for the information being lost in the transition from paper cards, handwritten and typed, to electronic online public access catalogs was another charming excursion into the very depths of professional convictions. As the educator of archivists, I was able to use the article as a case study about the nature of selection of materials for preservation, a topic relevant to the new debate about newspaper microfilming. And, in fact, I co-authored an essay in which we re-examined one unique and interesting older library catalog and pondered its fate . Without his controversial essay, I might not have thought through an issue like this, or at least not approached it in the same fashion.
What I appreciate about Mr. Baker's writings is that he convinces you to re-evaluate basic concepts. In the classroom this leads to animated discussions capturing the complexities of both library and archival work, complexities that Baker himself often glides by as his makes his case. This is acceptable, because we all should recognize that he is a patron of libraries and a lover of books, not a professional librarian or archivist. In general, as in the more recent discussion about newspapers, Mr. Baker is wrong, but you need to twist a bit, scratch about in your strongest opinions, and reflect in order to determine just why he is wrong . I wish we had more in librarianship and archivy who could make you do this. That he takes his case to the public forum, a practice that annoys many inside the field, is useful because he elevates public discourse and provides a forum for the professionals to participate in, although it has proved to be difficult for library and archival scholars and practitioners to break into print in the same forum . We don't normally hire literary agents, and we lack the same name recognition that might open doors for us to publish in venues like the New Yorker .
The Big Lie?
In Baker's new article, "Deadline: the author's desperate bid to save America's past,"  he builds the essay around four major points: a lie foisted upon the public about the care of the newspapers, the insidious destruction of original newspapers, the resultant loss of trust by the public in libraries and archives, and a set of wrong priorities leading to the misguided microfilming and destruction of the newspapers.
First, there is the big lie (my words, not his) foisted on an unsuspecting American public by research libraries, archives, and historical societies. Baker starts the article by recounting a discussion with Bill Blackbeard, running the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, indicating that there is a mass destruction of original newspapers by the Library of Congress through the replacement of microfilm, justified by this institution's lying that this was necessary because of the "diagnosed states of acidity and embrittlement" . Baker questions this, cascading one inaccuracy after another about the condition of both newsprint and the utility of microfilm as a reformatting medium to demonstrate the fallacy of this viewpoint. While we know that newsprint left in the sun "quickly turns yellow and brittle," we also know that wood-pulp newspapers of fifty and a hundred years ago are often surprisingly well preserved" . As a result, Baker asks, "Why not find out what's happened to the newspapers?"  Here, Baker also injects the notion of a lie. He agrees that newsprint can become brittle and fragile "if it is stored, say, on the cement floor of a library basement, near heating pipes, for a few decades. But there has never been a long-term study that attempted to plot an actual loss-of-strength curve for samples of naturally aging newsprint or, indeed, for samples of any paper" . In other words, America's repositories were being irresponsible. Baker believes, however, that it was more than irresponsibility. Instead, he speculates that even after librarians learned that newsprint was not deteriorating as fast as predicted that they remained wedded to microfilm because of other issues, such as space savings .
If American libraries and other repositories have been engaged in fabricating a lie, it is truly one of immense proportions (and certainly Nicholson Baker believes this is the case). For one thing, the Library of Congress started worrying about newspaper deterioration in the 1890s and commenced actively working on the solution via microfilming in the 1930s. Within three decades, the LC newspaper program was nearly exclusively one utilizing microfilm . Moreover, other nations have looked to the United States as providing exemplary leadership in the preservation of newspapers' content. Helmuth Bergmann describes the situation in his own country of Austria where very few newspapers are microfilmed, loaning is problematic because of the bulk of the originals, and there is little bibliographic control over titles and runs so it is difficult to track down titles . Baker's desperation to save America's newspaper heritage may seem a bit odd to others in foreign nations where less has been done to gain control of newspaper collections. If one only views the maintaining of original newspapers as the objective, then there is room for objection. However, such preservation must be put into the context of other priorities, bibliographic control, access, and other such matters faced by the repositories holding newspapers.
The convincing tone Baker assumes when describing the level of knowledge about the technical aspects of preservation of newspapers perhaps reflects the divided views held by individuals working as conservators and preservation administrators. Winston Tabb, at the Library of Congress, argues that Baker simply has it all wrong. He writes, "Unfortunately, the chemical 'vice' of certain formats, such as the acidic and impermanent newsprint on which most of the world's news is printed, limits what libraries can retain in original format." Tabb relates that, "In asserting that newsprint will last indefinitely, Mr. Baker is overlooking several decades of scientific research that contradicts the linchpin of his argument. Library of Congress experts shared that information, as well as more recent unpublished scientific data, with Mr. Baker when he visited the Library in December 1998." Microfilm may have problems, but it is still the best solution, according to Tabb: "Microfilming, while not perfect, has proven to be an effective technology for rescuing brittle paper and for facilitating shared access to endangered research materials. Microfilm created in accordance with international standards has succeeded in preserving millions of newspaper pages that would otherwise have crumbled into uselessness. It has also enabled innumerable numbers of readers in distant locations to gain access to the content of newspapers that they otherwise could not have used" .
But other preservation experts hold different perspectives. Ellen McCrady, a long-time leader in preservation work, sides with Baker. She believes newsprint can be kept strong if stored in the proper environment keeping it from "prolonged exposure to sunlight," "temperature elevations sustained above 60 deg.-70 deg. F," "high prolonged humidity combined with heat," and "heavy continued and careless reading or referral use of the publication." The problem, according to McCrady, comes from the problems with how the tests on newsprint have been done: "Our ideas of newsprint permanence come from accelerated aging tests using heat, and from direct observation of tattered clippings in scrapbooks and cookbooks. We have heard that deacidification can extend the life of newsprint almost as far as that of ordinary book paper. However, a report of research based on accelerated aging using light, not heat, was recently published in Restaurator . It found that the achilles' heel of newsprint was not heat, but light." McCrady makes a similar emotional appeal as we find in Baker's article: "I don't think Mr. Tabb should be as disturbed about Nicholson Baker's comments or descriptions of the Library of Congress's actions as he is. Those newspapers are, after all, part of my heritage, and the heritage of others who don't like to see them disappear. In the past, I have watched, aghast, as the guillotine at the Library of Congress cut off the backs of bound newspaper volumes so that they could be microfilmed ... Since it is the Library of Congress's duty to preserve the American heritage, there should be some way for Americans to express our preferences to the Library of Congress without our being criticized for speaking up" . An English scholar also suggested that Baker "should be congratulated, not censured, for bringing important issues to our attention," especially that much "old microfilm is of extremely poor quality" and "much color material has only been microfilmed in black and white" . Here we have an age-old problem about the tension between saving information that is inherent in the original format of any source, such as newspapers, and that the information may be completely lost if nothing is done or partially destroyed if actions such as microfilming are carried out.
Others concerned about the fate of newspapers have rallied to Baker's position, for much the same reasons, wringing their hands about damage done to or destruction of the originals. A library student, with "more than 20 years in the field of libraries and conservation," notes that he was assigned Baker's article and read it "with a feeling of nausea and what I can only describe as guilt or regret." He recounts using Punch, which was in "fine shape," and now believes that microfilming this would be "truly sickening since it ignores the tactile qualities, color and many other important aspects of the format. After all, a newspaper is not simply a source of information. Many of them were in odd formats and had many quirks that would not reproduce well." This experienced student is convinced that "originals should be preserved whenever possible and that destructive reformatting processes are not acceptable except under very, very unusual circumstances. We are clearly unable to anticipate what will be important in the future and caution is in order." He cautions about criticizing Baker, since "preservation and conservation do take place in a social context for better or for worse" . Colin Webb, Director of the Preservation Services Branch in the National Library of Australia, believes Baker's article is worth some reflection. Webb has "often been dismayed to see the results of rapid deterioration, but just as often we've been surprised to see 100 year old issues that were just fine." Webb also worries about the unevenness of quality of microfilm and argues that his own institution is continuing to rely on microfilming while "raising the standard of filming, project design, specifications and project management." Webb muses that Baker's article "seems unfair at a number of points," but it does "reminds us that as well as quality issues, even at its best microfilm can't be said to replicate all the values of the 'original.'" He suggests "our preservation profession has sometimes found it easier to enlist support by telling half-truths (probably nine-tenth truths). We did it with environmental conditions for storing collections, we probably did it with accelerated aging, and it looks like we might have done it with microfilming. We can see the same phenomenon with digitization, although the "digitization = preservation" lobby is largely coming from outside the preservation profession" . Donald Farren describes how he had some years before (in a 1989 conference) proposed that "national libraries should assume the responsibility (distributed countrywide as appropriate) to Conserve in Original Form at Least One Copy of Every Newspaper," lamenting that there was little support for the idea. "As Nicholson Baker's piece suggests," Farren chided, "time will tell, and public opinion will decide, which policy - selective (at least) conservation or mass microfilming - is the wisest" . I will return to such concerns in my conclusion.
While individuals are responding to Baker's arguments, obviously being moved by them, others have written before about newspaper preservation in a way that challenges Baker's interest in the preservation of original newspapers. Englishman David Stoker wrote just last year that microfilming activities are needed now "due to the urgency of the preservation problem, which necessitates some form of action now, before more titles are lost forever, and the inadequacies of existing OCR technology to cope with the rough and ready printing quality found in local newspapers. Newspapers were never intended by their producers to be a permanent means of storing textual information, and the recognition that they contain a mass of valuable information not available elsewhere, is only a comparatively recent phenomenon" . For such individuals, then, there is a timing issue; if we do not move now, we will lose most or much of the newspapers, not just because of the paper quality but because the original newspapers are often stored in substandard environmental conditions (a recognition that the vast bulk of the newspapers are scattered about in moderate and small repositories in older facilities and with limited financial resources) and because these newspapers might be heavily used by researchers (and for some of the newspapers "heavy" might constitute a few turns of the pages).
The real problem with all of this is that it paints only an either-or position focused exclusively on preservation of originals versus the maintenance of content, ignoring concerns such as access to complete runs of newspapers, bibliographic control, the massive quantity of newspaper titles, and the enormous bulk of these newspapers. The legacy of care for newspapers resulted from the scale of the problems posed - running along side of other problems such as brittle books and electronic records management, requiring librarians and archivists to make choices and to set priorities necessitating a solution such as microfilm. In other words, the problems are much more complex than Mr. Baker understands or cares to discuss. This is often the case when well-meaning individuals step forward to air their concerns about such matters. Librarians and archivists need to be able to use articles by individuals like Nicholson Baker to elevate the discussion in the public forum, hopefully educating such outspoken critics so that they understand the full dimensions of the challenges and can understand the nature of the present solutions as well as using these arguments to re-examine basic assumptions and cherished approaches.
A Modern Paper Drive?
Nicholson Baker's second issue is even more insidious, namely that the process of microfilming for preservation actually destroys the newspapers - an immense contradiction and one not openly discussed, according to this author. Baker admits that there is "nothing intrinsically wrong with microfilming," except that right from the beginning, it has been "intimately linked" with the destruction of newspapers . One of the reasons Baker's article elicits such emotional responses is his graphic descriptions of how the old newspapers are being disposed of. Baker recounts how many of the newspapers are being sold to dealers like Timothy Hughes Rare Newspapers where the papers are cut up and sold for their "eye-catching headline issues" or "issues containing primordial Coke ads or Thomas Nast illustrations, shrink-wrapped against white cardboard, at paper shows ... or from his catalogue or his Web site" . With this issue, Baker reaches far to make his point. His assessment that "not since the monk-harassments of sixteenth-century England has a government tolerated, indeed stimulated, the methodological eradication of so much primary source material," seems a bit outlandish but the image is indeed powerful . Baker also seeks sympathy in his revelation that he is, at great personal expense, buying newspapers and storing the originals in order to save these original newspapers .
It is with his concern about the destruction of the newspapers that Baker pitches his strongest points. Baker points the finger squarely at the librarians, assessing that "librarians have misled us: for more than fifty years, they have disparaged paper's residual strength, while remaining as 'blind as lovers' (as Allen Veaner, former editor of Microform Review, once wrote) to the failings and infirmities of film" . In discussing spending his life savings to establish a repository for original newspapers, perhaps the aspect most gaining sympathy for Baker's perspective, Baker sarcastically notes: "Maybe someday a research library will want to take responsibility for these things, or maybe not - whatever happens, at least they aren't going to be cut up and sold as birthday presents" . This ignores that the kind of responsibility Baker expects such programs to assume must be evaluated against many other responsibilities. Saving every original newspaper seems a bit excessive, especially since this limits their use to those who can come to the repository and ignores other problems such as how much these newspapers will cost to maintain given their prospective use. Perhaps being very selective and identifying a small percentage of newspapers with what archivists term "intrinsic value" to be maintained in original form makes far more sense. Intrinsic value "has long been used by archivists to describe historical materials that should be retained in their original form rather than as copies." "Intrinsic value is the archival term that is applied to permanently valuable records that have qualities and characteristics that make the records in their original physical form the only archivally acceptable form for preservation. Although all records in their original physical form have qualities and characteristics that would not be preserved in copies, records with intrinsic value have them to such a significant degree that the originals must be saved" . It is, unfortunately, not something librarians have been able themselves to come to terms with as effectively as they should, although there have been disputants such as G. Thomas Tanselle .
It is mysterious to me that individuals long associated with preservation would so quickly rally around Baker's lament about the destruction of the originals. Baker fails to understand that the issue of storing such papers and then making them available for use has long been a problem. The Library of Congress started acquiring newspapers from its beginning, and it began to acquire newspapers much more systematically in 1874. The problem of the massive volume associated with newspapers leads to a need to re-think their maintenance, and this issue has long been known. The Librarian of Congress in his 1875 report wrote,"Though carefully preserved and promptly bound for preservation, there is no longer the possibility even of receiving half the issues of these representative journals, so important in our current history and politics; and the time will soon come when the legislator in search of a fact, a date, a political article, or a table of statistics known to be in a certain newspaper at a certain date, will find it only at the bottom of a lofty pile of journals, all of which must be displaced before it can be reached. Besides the issues of the daily press, the periodicals which are taken under the copyright law or by subscription, embracing most of the monthly and quarterly magazines and reviews, accumulate with such rapidity that no device yet invented will long avail to produce them when wanted" .
A quarter of a century later, in the 1901 report, things were still bleak: "When the collection was moved into the new building these files were only in part bound, or in condition to be placed on the shelves or even assorted. The newspapers, piled upon the floor filled aisles and alcoves of seven of the nine decks of the south stack. The unbound mass, which could be estimated only by tons, occupied three large rooms ... It was also piled upon the floors 6 feet deep, with but narrow aisles along the walls. It was the accumulation of nearly half a century. In fact it had been tied in bundles, but the strings had broken in handling" .
The sheer size of all of the newspapers ever printed makes for a staggering image of what would be required in maintaining and servicing original newspaper issues. David Stoker's contention (quoted earlier) that newspapers were viewed as ephemeral by their creators and most of their readers seems lost in such an argument, unless we assume that all those old newspapers held onto as keepsakes is anything more meaningful than normal human nature's impulse to collect stuff. Saving everything in original form seems almost the old antiquarian sensibility rather than as a result of a more informed opinion that careful selection and employment of technologies can work together to save a representative sample of the original newspapers while making the content of most of the newspapers more accessible to researchers. We know, for instance, that "From the beginning, the Librarian [of Congress] and staff recognized that the institution could not house more than a sampling of American newspapers and that the collection must be guided by general research requirements" . That the Library of Congress has sampled what newspapers it acquires needs to be re-evaluated in light of more rigorous selection criteria, especially about what newspapers it microfilms or maintains in original form. The need for selection, especially in a universe of documentation as large as what is represented by newspapers, is an issue often missed by outside commentators, not just in libraries and archives but in all fields with some responsibility for aspects of the documentary heritage .
A Loss of Trust?
Much of Baker's essay, in fact, turns on a third theme, a loss of trust by the public in what libraries, archives, and other repositories are doing with resources like newspaper collections. Baker creates a "good old days" of newspaper preservation when he writes, "If American libraries had been doing the job we trusted that they were doing over the past several decades, then the British Library's decision to auction off millions of pages of urban life, although it would mark a low point of cultural husbandry, would not be the sort of disastrous loss to future historians that it threatened to become when I found out about it. Fifty years ago, there were bound sets, even double sets, of all the major metropolitan dailies safely stored in libraries around the United States" . The decision to use microfilm is again presented almost as if it is part of a vast coordinated conspiracy. In the face of a great quantity of poor microfilm, "All the major American newspaper repositories have long since bet the farm on film and given away, sold, or thrown out most of their original volumes published after 1880 or so" . No one will argue that mistakes have been made or that problems have occurred, but this is true for every aspect of library or archival work - not part of a conspiracy .
There was, of course, no grand era for managing and preserving newspapers. The durable bound sets Baker refers to may have been in pristine shape because they were infrequently used and, of course, such newspapers - the "major metropolitan dailies" - represented only a small portion of the many thousands of titles published in every region of the nation. But it is not just the microfilming of the papers or even the quality of paper they are printed on that is to blame for the matter of the use of the newspapers. Without question, newspapers are very important historical sources. English librarian David Stoker writes, "newspapers ... provide a unique and readily accessible glimpse of the unfolding nature of events. They indicate that state of knowledge or of public opinion at a given time, that no amount of subsequent analysis and more considered reflection can provide. Newspapers are not merely historical sources for academics, but have an equally important role in education and for all that are interested in the past. Of course any reasonably sophisticated reader knows that all newspapers are at times inaccurate or else select, interpret, and at times distort the events they report. Indeed some newspapers even today will print what amounts to little more than barefaced lies. They must therefore be used with care - yet this must apply to any historical source" . Another librarian interested in the preservation of newspapers adds, "By studying a community's newspaper over an extended period, one has a better chance of bringing that world back to life. For those of us trying to trace our ancestors, we have the opportunity to discover not only that they bought a particular piece of property, but we also have a chance to see what they might have built on that property, how their house might have been furnished, what they wore, what ailments they were subject to, and how they and their neighbors felt about the events occurring around them. The social scientists might find clues to a community's attitude toward suicide by noting its appearance in, and then sudden disappearance from, death notices. The economist will show how the ban on DDT in Mississippi altered local commerce from cotton-growing to catfish farming. The fashion designer will study ads and illustrations for new ideas. Finally, the careful researcher will be able to confirm that the Alliance Aviators humiliated the Massillon Tigers by a score of 46-0 in the fall of 1962 in Ohio, in the rain" . Neither set of comments really gets us closer to criteria that might help determine the selection of some newspapers in original formats (a question I will return to in my conclusion).
We must be careful, however, not to paint a picture of historical evidence that suggests that newspapers are the keystones of such documentation. There are problems with the accuracy of the information found in any newspaper, compounding whatever challenges may come from using microfilm. English sociologist John Scott notes that "there is a common presumption that newspapers are not subject to a high level of distortion or falsification ... Undoubtedly the major source of insincerity in newspaper and television reporting is the influence of owners and controllers acting on the basis of the perceived political or financial interests of themselves or of external bodies." Scott sees that the problem of accuracy is much more pervasive. "The most common problem of credibility in newspaper and television reports, however, derives not from a lack of personal sincerity on the part of the journalist or of those with whom he or she deals, but from the administrative routines of news-making that affect its accuracy. Apparently factual reports are frequently compiled from press releases, with journalists checking the basic story and following up one or two points." Scott mentions how quotes are made up, understood by journalists but often not by readers. "Researchers using such sources must apply an understanding of the conventions of the press release as a way of inferring the meaning of the text" . Now, I am certainly not implying that newspapers should be destroyed, but I also think that tending to romanticize them as critical to American history and society also does a disservice, clouding the real need for selectivity. The typical newspaper's ratio of relevant information per linear or cubic foot of a library or archives shelf space may be much lower than many other evidence sources. In many cases, resources used to preserve these sources may not be available for use for other sources. We need to remember that we must develop carefully selected priorities that will enable us to preserve the most important historical sources in the most efficient manner possible. It is not just about whether we preserve some old newspapers in their original form or via reformatting, but it concerns how well we manage the entire documentary heritage of which newspapers are only a small part. One might argue, for example, that far more attention needs to be given to electronic records (digitally-born sources) and the maintenance of items digitized through migration, emulation, and other strategies .
Indeed, Baker often makes huge leaps in order to make his impassioned plea for the preservation of the newspapers. For example, Baker writes, "Historians don't read the old papers because their libraries don't keep the old papers to read, and microfilm is a brain-poaching, gorge-lifting trial to browse" . I have heard many people complain about using microfilm, but I have heard many more praise the increased access that microfilm provides to them. Richard Atlick, in his classic volume on literary research, suggested that microfilm has enabled "even libraries of fairly modest proportions to acquire immense quantities of rare books and periodicals [and newspapers]" . For Baker, it is his juxtaposition of complaints about the quality of microfilm with the possibility that institutions are disposing still usable original newspapers that raises the specter of a huge breach of trust. "Everything goes wrong in time," Baker muses, but the "germane question is whether the Library of Congress, and the many institutions that followed its example, got rid of things that were, at the time of their jettisoning, both usable and valuable. I bought, on eBay, a 1908 volume of the Panama City Star & Herald (published in English during the building of the Panama Canal); it has the Library of Congress's oval stamp on the spine. From a dealer, I brought a volume of the New York Post for April, 1943, also spine-stamped by the Library of Congress. Both these objects are in excellent fettle; they can be opened and the pages turned with impunity" . Such anecdotal evidence hardly makes the case Baker thinks it does. Indeed, I would argue that the case could be made only if most newspapers microfilmed were still usable, even though microfilming might be the preferred approach because it saves most of the content of newspapers in a form less expensive and more accessible than other approaches.
Baker knows there is an emotional, Romantic, perspective associated with using newspapers in their original form. A few months after his New Yorker essay, other newspapers were picking up the story, complaining about the inability to use the papers, problems with microfilm, and the high costs and slow process associated with digitizing the newspaper files. Kevin Fagin of the San Francisco Chronicle writes, "Papers create a space crunch for newspapers and public libraries alike, and around the nation over the past half-century, archivists have had to grit their teeth and throw away huge rooms of bound volumes in favor of microfilm." He continues, "Many still long for the authenticity of a real, printed newspaper - and that longing becomes especially acute when considering that microfilm, the answer thought to be so perfect from about 1950 onward, has proven fallible" . Here, perhaps, we have the real issue - a desire, in this virtual age, to experience what original newspapers were like. However laudatory this may seem, there are simply not the resources to preserve all originals and, as well, the preservation of newspapers in this way actually limits access to the crucial information found in such sources. Some readers or researchers love the smell of decaying books or the allure of dark and dusty archives, but this does not suggest we should create such environments as these, ones obviously threatening the survival of books and manuscripts.
Whether they have been "gritting" their teeth or not, librarians and archivists have long known about the challenges associated with newspapers, but they have often had to make the best choices open to them in light of physical, financial, and other criteria. We know, for example, that if a researcher uses a newspaper by searching on a CD-ROM or on microfilm that different search results may come. Lorre Smith, an academic serials librarian, studied the differences between using microfilm and a CD-ROM version of one newspaper. Smith found that using the different indexes produced different end results. "The equipment that is used to provide physical access to the information in microform and in compact disc format result in considerably distinct experiences for users" . A staff member of the British Library, now under attack for selling off some of its newspaper holdings, wrote that the "biggest problem for users of hard copy and microfilm newspaper collections is the difficulty of subject access: unless the newspaper is one of the few to which a subject index is published or unless an index to a title or group of titles has been created locally, then finding articles on a particular topic is very time consuming, unless one has a precise knowledge of the dates on which relevant articles were likely to have been published." This individual also noted the limitations of online versions of newspapers, where the publisher is selective, excluding "items for which the newspaper concerned does not hold copyright, e.g., press agency material, signed articles by individual columnists, as well as the photographs, advertisements, cartoons, crosswords and much other material which give the text articles their context and which give individual character to the titles concerned. The user does not see the page on which the article appeared, so that the size of the headline, the prominence given to the particular article, the accompanying photographs are all lost" .
Archivists and librarians also have been aware of the limitations of microfilm, but, unlike Baker and other critics, they realize that the conditions of newspapers required decisions to be made about the copying of their contents. David Stoker, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Information and Library Studies, University of Wales Aberystwyth, writes about the decision to use microfilm: "A more difficult question to answer is why the project should have chosen to persevere with the use of micrographic technology at a time when the rest of the world seems to be moving in the direction of the digital storage and transmission of texts. Arguably, this is the use of a mid-twentieth century technology to solve a preservation problem stretching into the new millennium. Micrographic formats may offer considerable advantages in terms of their compactness of storage, and they are inevitably far more robust and stable than the poor quality newsprint used for provincial newspapers, especially those from the nineteenth century which are deteriorating at an alarming rate. Yet they are by no means a permanent answer to preservation problems, and they offer many disadvantages in access and usability of the texts. Microfilm in particular has never been popular among information users compared with the originals in hard copy. It requires expensive and cumbersome equipment that impedes rapid scanning and browsing, which is an important element in accessing the text on any newspaper page" . There are, however, even more basic concerns that critics like Nicholson Baker tend to overlook when assessing how libraries and other repositories have maintained their newspaper collections, a recognition that preservation is at best a difficult function because of costs, the loss of some evidence, use difficulties, and other, similar tenacious matters.
One of the greatest challenges not addressed by Baker is the immensity of the intellectual control over the thousands of newspaper titles published and the volatility of titles, runs, and other aspects of their publication. Baker, in assailing the turn to microfilm, ignores that the first step of the U.S. Newspaper Program was creating accurate union lists of all American newspapers, from national and regional publications to the most local imprints . What Baker misses in his Romanticizing of preserving the originals is the enormity of the task involved in maintaining accurate bibliographic control or even in acquiring complete runs of most newspapers; it has been through the process of trying to create complete microfilm runs that both bibliographic control and more complete archives of the newspapers have been developed. One individual describing the U.S. Newspaper Program writes, "even though at least one institution in nearly every state has maintained a large collection of titles published in that state, USNP project teams will discover anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of the titles published in the state have not been collected, and an additional 10 percent have not been previously identified." Sometimes even the files of a single newspaper "may be broken up and scattered through the state" . The United States Newspaper Program expects to catalog over 245,000 different newspaper titles and to microfilm 55 million pages, and many of these titles are quite complex in terms of their control and creation of full runs. Two Michigan newspapers "went through 18 title changes and five mergers" in their existence , and this is not at all an unusual occurrence. Without some national attention to such matters, most often manifested as parts of projects to reformat the contents of newspapers for greater access, it is unlikely that any researchers would be able to use with confidence original runs of newspapers. It has been only more recently that any reliable bibliographic control has been established enabling researchers to find the newspapers to begin with.
We have seen, in fact, a revolution in how we deal with newspapers, a stark contrast to Baker's lamentations about their destruction. The problem with intellectual control over American newspapers has been a continuing problem, and one we have faced for a long time. Although historians recognized the value of newspapers as a historical source a long time ago (John Bach McMaster published a history of the United States based on newspaper accounts in 1883 and in 1923 Lucy Salmon published her The Newspaper and the historian) and institutions have long collected newspapers (Isaiah Thomas donated a large collection of newspapers to the American Antiquarian Society in 1812), by the 1970s, when the United States Newspaper Program got started, bibliographic control over newspapers was very poor. In fact, all of this latter activity should be seen as a positive thing. "The great burst of activity in that decade, manifest in such developments as the reorganization and coordination of national preservation efforts at the Library of Congress, the formation of the United States Newspaper Project with its emphasis on bibliographic control, and the introduction of several online newspaper indexes, pointed for the first time to the possibility of total research assess to all newspapers" . Why, now, someone like Nicholson Baker comes forward and criticizes the microfilming of newspapers seems a bit strange, except that we can see such outbursts as part of an uneasy living within the newly emerging Digital Age. Diary writing, scrapbooking, and hunting through flea markets all have grown enormously in popularity in the past decade, partly because of the need for people to touch originals as so much becomes virtual.
Stranger still is the fourth theme in Baker's article, that our libraries and archives are working under the wrong priorities. Throughout his essay, Baker drops little bombshells about just what libraries are doing these days, such as "Like missile defense, leading edge library automation is a money pit" . But Baker saves his most critical assessments for the largest libraries. About the Library of Congress and its efforts to offer older runs of original newspapers, Baker writes, "Increasingly, there were no takers, because such is the prestige of our biggest library that whatever its in-house theoreticians come to believe - however anathematic to the ideals of reasoned stewardship - other research libraries will soon believe as well" . And Baker continues to assert that it is not just because of the ill-guided notions of the LC's "theoreticians" that such poor decisions are being made, but something even more insidious that it is difficult to pinpoint: "Lack of money isn't the problem. The library has spent huge sums on microfilming, and its preservation budget is more than eleven million dollars a year - enough to build and out fit a warehouse the size of a Home Depot, which would hold a century of newsprint" . A century of newsprint from what newspapers is, of course, the major question, because such a warehouse could not hold all of the newspapers nor even all the major urban dailies from the past century.
Baker is even more critical of the British Library. In reference to this institution, he speculates: "Apparently, it was a matter of indifference to the library's managers whether the newspaper collection held rarities or not; they were perfectly willing to act in a way that would all but guarantee its quietus at the hands of the paper knackers. They wanted the money" . Baker ignores the tremendous space needed to maintain originals. Geoff Smith, writing about the challenges faced by the British Library some years before the Baker article, described the situation in this way: "For anyone collecting and preserving newspapers in original hard copy form, the first essential requirement is for a great deal of storage space. The British Library Newspaper Library's 600,000 bound volumes and parcels of newspapers and 300,000 reels of positive microfilm occupy some 18 linear miles ... of shelving" . Baker's inclusion of the British Library came about because of his discovery that that library was selling off its American newspapers, some of which he arranged to purchase. Baker's article caught the attention of the British, and an article accusing the British Library of betraying the public's trust appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. In this later article, most of Baker's arguments are repeated, although the author extends his worry that if the British Library will destroy original newspapers after microfilming, what is to prevent it from doing the same to books. Again, most of this argument revolves about the unique values of originals, problems with the production of the microfilm, and a sense that librarians and archivists are assumed to be responsible for maintaining newspapers (and books) in their original form .
Nicholson Baker has drawn the public's attention to the challenge of preserving newspapers, and perhaps to the larger challenges associated with all library and archival preservation. The strength of his essay is that people can understand one aspect of the difficulty in preserving any information document, that there are never any easy answers and, at best, solutions may bring as many additional problems with them as what they are supposedly resolving. However, it is at best a false hope that we should save all original newspapers, just as it was somewhat off kilter that we should save all those old library catalogs. Should we also save all old buildings, old books, and printed ephemera? Should everything always be saved in the original form? Or, is this a misunderstanding of just what the responsibility of librarians and archivists represent?
Archivists, for one, have always operated on the premise that they must be selective, saving most of their internal professional debates not to focus on the question of original versus reproduction but rather on just what the criteria for selection might be. Arguments have been made to suggest that use, multi-institutional selection plans, theoretical models, and even the preferences of records creators should serve as the foundation of the appraisal approaches. While there are many camps within the modern archival community about just what criteria should be used, there appears to be consensus about the fact that archivists destroy more records than they preserve . Some have even argued that not all archival records can be saved; the immensity of the challenge is such we know there will be losses, either through mistakes or by virtue of the fact that there are too few archivists and too many records. Too many people might believe that these records will be saved because of their experiences at flea markets, auctions, and what they see happening on Antiques Roadshow.
The problem with the question of newspaper microfilming is that neither the library or preservation communities have been as open about developing criteria for selection, until very recently. It has only been in recent years that the preservation community has worked on focusing on selection criteria anywhere close to rivaling the schemes suggested by various archivists. Paul Conway is one who has been most forceful in pushing a selection approach, perhaps because he moved from the archival profession to the preservation community. Conway argues that "preservation adds value through selection. Choice involves defining value, recognizing it in something, and then deciding to address preservation needs in the way most appropriate to that value. Selection in archives and research libraries was once thought to be primarily a one-time decision about the potential for future use, made near the time of publication or when the documents ceased to serve the primary purposes for which they had been created originally. Over decades the act of preservation has evolved from saving material from oblivion and assembling it in secure buildings to encompass more sophisticated condition, value, and use assessments on the already-collected. Preservation selection in libraries has been dictated largely by the need to stretch limited resources in as wise a fashion as possible, resulting in the dictum that 'no item shall be reformatted twice.' The end result is a growing 'virtual' special collection of items preserved using a variety of techniques, most notably by microfilming. Selection is perhaps the most difficult of undertakings precisely because it is static and conceived by practitioners as either completely divorced from present use or completely driven by demand" . Now, basic textbooks in preservation feature considerable discussion about selection concerns . The development of digital means for reformatting, meaning the addition of another reformatting approach, has prompted more serious discussion about selection criteria. In the case of newspapers and their microfilming they have focused on reformatting the content of all newspapers without much regard for the possible selection of some newspapers that might deserve to be maintained in their original format. The problem here is that this approach emerged long before more sophisticated selection approaches began to be discussed .
We can have the best of both worlds, the microfilming approach to ease storage and enhance access while freezing the deterioration of the information found in newspapers with highly selective saving of original newspapers. Baker commenced his essay with laments about the loss of the earliest color printed comics. I see no reason why such newspapers should not be saved in their original form, as long as we are not contending that this can only be done if all newspapers are saved or if we cannot safely predict such unique features leading to a need to be comprehensive in saving all newspapers in their original form. In being selective, we need to have a plan in mind, a sense of what it is we would need to save. Such typographic breakthroughs as the first color comics could be identified and dealt with in a meaningful way. Beyond that we would need to work on developing criteria about what newspapers would be saved to document certain aspects, such as landmarks in newspaper publishing and journalism, particular historic events, aspects of local community developments, and so forth. Clearly doing this would have another benefit - opening up the process of developing mechanisms for preserving the content of newspapers and the small percentage of newspapers needing to be saved in their original formats. The Baker essay might be the result of an effort to preserve newspapers that has simply ignored communicating to the public not just how but why.
We need to experiment more with determining just what original newspapers should be saved. Librarians and preservation administrators, in attacking the brittle book and other large-scale preservation problems, experimented with a series of selection processes. First, they tried the "great collections" approach, but they found serious problems with this method: "But selecting those titles and volumes, and only those, that are both valuable intellectually and fragile physically is a very labor-intensive activity. It would have meant choosing items for preservation literally title by title." Then, librarians and their allies tried the "bibliographical model" where they "used a series of titles or a body of literature identified by a bibliographer or scholarly editorial board as a basis for selection, thus assembling a single metacollection that exists only in surrogate form." This, too, had limitations: "It was generally acknowledged that this method could only be effective in those academic fields that had a highly evolved bibliographical consensus, such as classics, agriculture, theology, and some area studies. It is simply impractical for newer or more dynamic fields that are evolving too quickly for consensus to emerge, or for fields such as history, in which the size of the source base precludes the idea of comprehensiveness." Another approach based on use was experimented with as a selection method: "Use-driven selection takes an approach opposite to that of the collections- or subject-based methods. This is an essentially passive form of identification, in which any item that is called for use is treated if it is in bad condition." Here both scholarly and political limitations emerge: "That this approach has not been widely adopted is due in part to the fact that NEH, the primary source of funding for preservation microfilming, endorses only the collections- and subject-based methods. User-driven selection is seen as ineffective in helping to rescue endangered information within a national, rather than local, context. By focusing on commonly used materials, it has been argued, one would end up creating a so-called national collection that is randomly selected, not a coherent body of literature." In looking at all the range of possibilities, Abby Smith concludes: "Preservation is the art of managing risk to the intellectual and physical heritage of a community and all members of that community have a stake in it. Risk management is dynamic, and, in practice, preservation becomes an ever-changing assessment of value and endangerment. A collaboration between scholars, who can advise about the intellectual value of collection items, and librarians, who can make judgments about the physical risk that threatens collections, is the best and most responsible way to ensure that the legacy we have inherited, and to which we contribute, will survive into the future" .
All involved in preserving our documentary heritage have to be committed to educating the public. The preservation community thought it had done a good job with films like Slow fires: on the preservation of the human record and Into the future: on the preservation of knowledge in the information age, both sponsored by the Council on Library and Information Resources . Obviously, we have not done well enough. In the Times Literary Supplement essay about the British Library newspapers, reference was made to the fact that the BL was enamored with "new technologies, so much more exciting and so much more expensive than old ones, ... simply superior to printed material, which is seen as disposable" . In effect, Nicholson Baker's essay is really a lament about the loss of an older sensibility to original newspapers, one generated by our immersion into and acceptance of copies via the Internet/World Wide Web that he and others worry may have dulled our senses about the value of original objects. Baker's article is much like Sven Birkert's worry about the demise of both the printed book and linear reading . However, one can believe in the continuing utility of print and the value of maintaining books and some newspapers in their original condition, while recognizing that the ultimate preservation demands requires mechanisms like microfilming and digitization projects. I know, because I see the need for both . There is no conspiracy or even tragic problem with our libraries and archives, other than the fact that they have immense challenges and limited resources. Nicholson Baker might think of himself as a Greek hero, calling others to join in his epic quest to save America's past. But, at best, Baker will only save a miniscule portion and perhaps even divert the public's attention from the greater issues facing the preservation of the books, documents, newspapers, and other artifacts of the past. Baker reminds me, unfortunately, of Sisyphus.
About the Author
Richard J. Cox is a Professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences where he teaches archives and records management. He is the author of six books and numerous articles on this and related subjects.
1. Information about Baker is available on the Nicholson Baker Fan Page, available at http://www.j-walk.com/nbaker/index.html
2. This earlier article was published as "Discards," New Yorker, (4 April 1994), pp. 64-70+, reprinted in his The Size of thoughts: essays and other lumber. (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), pp. 125-174.
3. Richard J. Cox, Jane Greenberg, and Cynthia Porter, 1998. "Access denied: the discarding of library history," American Libraries, volume 29 (April), pp. 57-61.
4. One respondent to Baker's earlier "Discards" article noted that he ignored issues of authority control; collection preservation; collection access; and, collection costs. See B. A. Helstien, 1995. "Libraries: once and future," Electronic Library, volume 13 (June), pp. 203-207.
5. I discussed this in my "Accountability, public scholarship, and library, information, and archival science educators," Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, volume 41 (Spring 2000), pp. 94-105. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/40324058
6. This has proved to be a problem in other areas as well. In a great debate about the priorities for documentary editing as established by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, archivists lost the arguments because the documentary editors could muster support from well-known public figures like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who could publish articles in major newspapers and other outlets and who had better access to political figures on Capitol Hill. For a description of this case, see my "Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, and Gates: quarrelling about the preservation of the documentary heritage of the United States," First Monday, volume 2, number 8 (August 1997), available at http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue2_8/cox/
7. Published in the New Yorker, 24 July 2000, pp. 42-61.
8. New Yorker, p. 42.
9. New Yorker, p. 45.
10. New Yorker, p. 44.
11. New Yorker, p. 48.
12. New Yorker, p. 47.
13. S. Branson Marley, Jr., 1975. "Newspapers and the Library of Congress," Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, volume 30, pp. 207-237 (see pp. 222-225, 232).
14. Helmuth Bergmann, 1996. "Newspaper interlending: back to library tourism?" Resource Sharing & Information Networks, volume 12, number 1, pp. 55-58. http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J121v12n01_06
15. This is from a letter Tabb wrote to the New Yorker, posted on the Conservation DistList (firstname.lastname@example.org) on Saturday, 14 October 2000 at 12:31:09 -0700 (PDT).
16. Her reference is to Vladimir Bukovsky, 2000. "The Influence of light on ageing of newsprint paper," Restaurator, volume 21, pp. 55-76. See also Victor Bukovsky, 1999. "Is Deacidification a stop to the rescue of historic newspapers?" Restaurator, volume 20, number 2, pp. 77-96 and Bukovsky, 1997. "Yellowing of newspaper after deacidification with methyl magnesium carbonate," Restaurator, volume 18, number 1, pp. 25-38, studies suggesting that the durability of the individual newspapers largely depends on the initial quality of the paper.
17. Ellen McCrady is the President of Abbey Publications, Inc. in Austin, Texas. Her comments were posted on the Conservation DistList (email@example.com) on Monday, 16 October 2000 at 16:59:15 -0700 (PDT).
18. Roy Moxham, University of London, the Institute of English Studies, posted his message to the Conservation DistList (firstname.lastname@example.org) on 18 October 2000 at 16:41:14 -0700 (PDT).
19. Posted by Mitchell Hearns Bishop to the Conservation DistList on 23 October 2000 at 16:39:17-0700 (PDT).
20. Colin Webb, Conservation DistList, 23 October 2000, 16:39:17-0700 (PDT).
21. Donald Farren, Conservation DistList, 23 October 2000, 16:39:17 -0700 (PDT).
22. David Stoker, 1999. "Should newspaper preservation be a lottery?" Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, volume 31 (September), pp. 131-134 (quotation from p. 132).
23. New Yorker, p. 49.
24. New Yorker, p. 44.
25. New Yorker, p. 50.
26. New Yorker pp. 59-61.
27. New Yorker, p. 55.
28. New Yorker, p. 61.
29. Intrinsic value in archival material, Staff Information Paper Number 21 (1982) (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982), available at http://www.nara.gov/arch/techinfo/intrin.html
30. Tanselle has written numerous articles about the immense value of the original document or book as the purveyor of information. Many of his most recent writings have been conveniently collected in his Literature and artifacts (Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1998).
31. Marley, "Newspapers and the Library of Congress," p. 211.
32. Marley, "Newspapers and the Library of Congress," p. 212.
33. Marley, "Newspapers and the Library of Congress," p. 219.
34. The most logical framework for reflecting about this is the recent scholarship on the concept of public memory. Patrick H. Hutton, History as an art of memory (Hanover: University of Vermont, 1993) provides a good introduction to the nature of the recent scholarship. Kenneth E. Foote, Shadowed ground: America's landscapes of violence and tragedy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997) is a good example of the different societal and other variables affecting historic sites, one that could be easily transposed for thinking about how artifacts, books, and archives survive. In most cases, the general public, even avid museum visitors or library users, do not think about how collections are established and evolve.
35. New Yorker, p. 45.
36. New Yorker, p. 45.
37. Mistakes do occur in the appraisal or selection of library or archival materials. See, for example, Inquiry into the Disposal of Records of the Naval Research Laboratory Stored at the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland, NARA Bulletin 99-03 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 24 April 1998), available at