Bookish Edinburgh

Hard to believe that tomorrow I will be on my way to Scotland and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2013! *happy dance*
I have compiled a list of some of my most highly-anticipated Edinburgh bookish attractions. There is no shortage of these — in fact, in 2004, Edinburgh was named the first UNESCO City of Literature.
Sir Walter Scott portrait by Henry Raeburn via Wikimedia Commons, owned by the National Galleries of Scotland

Sir Walter Scott portrait by Henry Raeburn via Wikimedia Commons, owned by the National Galleries of Scotland

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2013 (August 2-26). Flipping through this year’s program, several shows caught my eye for their literary associations. As expected, Shakespeare is in large supply.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, there will be over 700 events, and sadly, I will be so busy with the Fringe I don’t know that I’ll have time for any of them. Check out the program here.
Writer’s Museum: Celebrating Scotland’s three great writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Scott Monument: The largest monument to a writer in the world.
Not thirsty? Try the Edinburgh Literary Bus Tour
The Elephant House, a cafe that is known to have been frequented by writers like J.K. Rowling.
Book shops: The Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature site has a map of 53 book shops here.
Mysterious Book sculptures, various locations: 10 mysterious book sculptures by an unknown artist first appeared in Edinburgh in 2011, and one has recently popped up again! The BBC reports.
Other Resources:
Literary Scotland: A Traveller’s Guide by Alan Riach (free PDF available for download)
What did I miss? Suggestions are welcome.
Tagged , , ,

The Onion’s Obituary for “Print”,33244/

“[T]hough print enjoyed a long, illustrious career for centuries, effortlessly reinventing itself countless times in order to better serve readers’ continual desire for information, in recent years observers reported that the medium was gradually slowing down its output, with both the quantity and quality of its work suffering as it struggled to keep up in a fast-paced landscape increasingly dominated by younger, more nimble channels such as the internet, email, and social media.”

Effective satire is based on truth. What do you think about The Onion‘s latest comment on the decline of print culture?

Tagged ,

Thanks to the IFW Women in Technology Award, I’ll be Studying Abroad in Scotland this Summer!

IFW Program Cover

I recently received the Women in Technology Award from the Initiatives for Women foundation at the University at Albany.  IFW is a fantastic organization that awards grants mainly in support of the educational and professional goals of women.  I am so grateful for their hard work and inspiring stories, and particularly to Kathy Turek, the sponsor of the Women in Technology Award.

This grant will help fund my summer course through the University of Maryland iSchool, “Follow the Fringe: Documentation and Preservation of Cultural Movements in Media”  held on location at the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland this August. In the past I have studied literature, Shakespeare, and theatre arts during a semester abroad in London, and worked on a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (a.k.a. the Scottish play).  As an MSIS student, I am particularly excited about digital humanities, digital archives and the preservation of our cultural heritage.  This course will be an excellent opportunity for me to get hands-on experience working with the preservation of digital archival material.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

A Visit to the Illustrious Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

I will admit that I had an ulterior motive for attending the Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century symposium recently at Yale.  I had never before been to the Beinecke.

Beinecke Library

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Yale University is a wonder.  Completed in the 1960s, the building has a modern, geometric design.  Within the translucent marble walls, the atmosphere is dim and hushed, as in a cathedral, yet in the center an enormous glass cube rises, rows upon rows of glorious old books enclosed within like candies behind a glass bakery case.

Beinecke Library

Beinecke Library

Beinecke Library

The Beinecke is one of the largest libraries of its kind in the world.  The collections include two — count ‘em, two — Gutenberg Bibles, on display in large, glass cases on the mezzanine.

Gutenberg Bibles at Beinecke Library

Also on permanent display are two enormous, gorgeously illustrated folios of Audubon’s Birds of America.

Audobon Folios at Beinecke Library

As if that wasn’t enough, during my visit there was an exhibition of manuscripts that included such treasures as John Keats’ handwritten sonnet in an 1814 copy of Dante’s The Vision; or, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; Goethe’s annotations in Faust II; Isaac Newton’s reading notes on alchemy, ca. 1700; a holograph draft of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; proof sheets of James Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle with handwritten corrections by Samuel Beckett; handwritten letters and postcards of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Charlotte Bronte (two authentic; one forged); and the infamous Voynich Manuscript.

"By Hand" exhibition at the Beinecke

I was so grateful to see this suberb exhibit highlighting the many scholarly insights to be gained from manuscripts (the word “manuscript” deriving from the Latin “by hand”).  The various drafts of a work illuminate the writer’s creative process; annotations in books offer glimpses into the writer’s thoughts; correspondence reveals friendship and love; the material elements of a document offer evidence of authenticity.  The paper and penmanship alone lend an incredible, tactile element to a handwritten manuscript that nothing else can match.

Letter from Charlotte Bronte to George Smith. Haworth, England, November 12, 1848. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Letter from Charlotte Bronte to George Smith. Haworth, England, November 12, 1848. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Voynich Manuscript, 15th or 16th ct. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Voynich Manuscript, 15th or 16th ct. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Although the manuscript exhibition has now ended, there are other things going on this year, as the Beinecke celebrates its 50th anniversary!  There is another exhibition on now until September 14th titled “Permanent Markers: Aspects of the History of Printing” that I would be sad to miss, and there are always online exhibits to check out as well.  Visit the Beinecke website for all their upcoming exhibitions, programs and events.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Beyond the Blog: Goodreads, Twitter & Pinterest

I want to thank all of my subscribers and readers and let you know about some of my other little corners of the Internet.


Be my friend!

I have been on Goodreads since 2009 at the recommendation of a wonderful, bookish friend.  If you scroll down to the bottom of my blog home page, you can see my Goodreads widget that shows whatever I’m currently reading.  Right now, in anticipation of my summer course in Edinburgh, I’m reading Arthur Herman’s “How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It.”  An intriguing, if hyperbolic, premise.

I love using Goodreads.  It’s a great way to keep track of what you’ve read and what you want to read (how many times have you completely forgotten the name of a book someone recommended to you?), share reviews, see what your friends are reading, and connect with your favorite authors.  I also really like the digital personal library organization aspect of it.  By tagging your books, you can organize them into shelves, such as “magical realism” or “short story collections” or “19th ct American gothic novels with feminist perspective” if you want to get really specific.

I have also recently achieved “Librarian” status, which means I can help edit book listings, cover images, metadata, etc, to help the site work better.  I’m eager to get started with that as soon as I finish studying up on the Goodreads Librarian manual.


Follow me! @thebibliofille

I joined Twitter fairly recently, during the Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century symposium at Yale University, to follow along with the conversation (#litarchive).  If you scroll down this page you can see my livestream Twitter widget! So cool.

Until I joined, I didn’t really have a sense of how Twitter could be useful for me.  It is essentially a micro-blogging platform which limits posts to 140 characters.  While I haven’t been a heavy tweeter, I have found it very useful to be able to “follow” individuals and organizations on Twitter — to be able to quickly check in and stay informed about happenings in the library/archive world.  Following the hashtag #litarchive during the Beyond the Text symposium, I found myself listening to the speakers while simultaneously viewing a live stream of the reactions of those sitting silently around me in the audience.  I found it incredibly useful to see how others were synthesizing the information being presented before we even got to the Q & A portion.

I am currently following 101 accounts, among them the Beinecke Library, the British LibraryAlbany Archives, Shakespeare’s Globe and Edgar Allan Poe. Check out my list of who I’m following for ideas.


Follow me!

I joined Pinterest recently because I was really intrigued by the idea of a visual, social bookmarking tool.  You bookmark (or “pin”) images from the Internet onto your boards, creating pin-board style pages of images which link to the original content.  I particularly like to use Pinterest as a way of collecting and sharing images of amazing libraries from around the world, images of book cover designs and book arts, images from online archives, lit-related things and favorite quotes.  My Pinterest also verges away from my “professional” interests into food, travel, style, DIY, gardening, and of course, animals (I secretly suspect the actual main purpose of the Internet is to share pictures of cute animals)!

It is really cool to see institutions promoting their digital collections through Pinterest, such as the National Archives and Mount Holyoke College Archives.


Tagged , , , ,

Day 2: Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century

Because I have been dreadfully tardy in compiling my thoughts on this symposium, this will be my final post on Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century symposium hosted by the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library.

For day two, I want to focus on the ”Intersections of Archival and Literary Theory” Panel.

Catherine Hobbs (Literary Archivist at Library and Archives Canada) gave a talk titled: ”Literary Archives, Literary Life, Literary Agency: Theory and Ethical Practice for Archivists.” I found this really valuable for the discussion of a literary archivist’s responsibility to contextualize a writer’s records, understanding the writer’s fonds, and also understanding the digital materiality of (or the effect of technology on) the records.  Some steps the archivist can take to “do right” by an author’s archive include inserting the author’s own words in the archive description or including an oral history.  In other words, it is possible to engage in a creative process with the archive; the fonds can be self-reflexive and can also be a form of identity construction.  Hobbs gave an example of a piece of junk mail which was the inspiration for poetry; in this case a record which would automatically have been de-selected, actually should be included in the author’s archive.
Heather MacNeil (Associate Professor, School of Information, University of Toronto) gave a wonderful talk comparing the traditional theory of archival arrangement to modern textual criticism as a way of interpreting the overall fonds, which  gave me a lot to think about in terms of how the archivist interacts with and shapes the archive.  A key concept here was philology, the study of language in written historical sources.
Literary archivists try to identify and represent the original order of records (authorial arrangement and intentions), taking into account the abstract nature of the fonds and the fact that the final intentions of the author are inevitably altered by transmission — corrections, subtractions and additions, editing and revising.  Similarly, textual critics try to reconstruct a version of a text which best embodies the intention of the author (the ideal or intended text) from the many corrupt versions available.
Thomas Tanselle believed the authorial intentions that shape a text are as important as the actual text.  As archivists, we infer a connection between original arrangement and the author’s purpose.  MacNeil likened archival arrangement to a paleontologist reorganizing fossil remains, or an archaeologist re-constructing a civilization; an effort to restore wholeness to something that exists only in fragments, to create a kind of synecdoche to approximate the abstract fonds.  The goal, as she so well articulated, is to restore a literary text to an “imagined historical moment” before the text was degraded by rearrangement by subsequent parties, thus obscuring the author’s original intentions for the text.
However, textual scholars like — McGann have scrutinized the idea of authorial final intentions and have argued in favor of a socialized textual scholarship because the work of certain writers is inextricably linked with their collaborators.  The process of editing a text back into its ideal, original version can isolate a text from its social context and deprive the work of much of its meaning.  Leah Marcus argues a new philology in which a text is culturally constructed and altered over time — a democratic pluralism in which a variety of less definitive editions exist.
Archival scholars have also questioned the assumption that original order can reveal the mind of the author, asking whether the order of records within a fonds should be continually evolving.  A new concept of provenance emerges, a socialized conception of archival arrangement which takes into account the circumstances that have shaped records over time.  This is fascinating in light of the idea that, according to MacNeil, the act of construction is what makes a text a text, and a fonds is conceptualized as a text by archivists.
Michael O’Driscoll (Professor, Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta) gave a talk called “Between Production and Reception: The Intervening Archive”, discussing the study of archive theory and radical poetics — the archive as a remainder of cultural history.
I wish I had more to share on O’Driscoll’s talk, but I was so wrapped up in his discussion of various writers that I completely neglected my note taking.  He discussed at length Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and Susan Howe, and the evidence we have of each of these writers reflecting on the materiality of text.
Ezra Pound, for example, while in the British Museum reading room, was utterly confounded by the vastness of texts present there, the sheer volume of textual material.
Virginia Woolf, also in the reading room, asked: if truth can not be found there, then where?  O’Driscoll referred to a quote in “A Room of One’s Own” that comments on the overwhelming materiality of print culture.
Susan Howe also demonstrated an engagement with material textuality, writing “I go to libraries because they are the ocean” — wild and vast.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bloggers of the World Unite: Rare Book Bloggers and the Links They Build

Reblogged from 8vo:

Click to visit the original post
  • Click to visit the original post
  • Click to visit the original post
  • Click to visit the original post
  • Click to visit the original post

This is a collaborative post by Brooke Palmieri and Daryl Green and can be found cross-posted on both of their blogs (8vo and Echoes from the Vault)

In August 2011 Brooke Palmieri [BP] wrote an entry over at her blog, 8vo, about a discovery she made while cataloguing a book for Sokol Books Ltd: an unassuming copy of…

Read more… 2,652 more words

Great post on what blogs can do for the rare books world!

Day One: Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century

In which I continue to rehash the events of Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century symposium hosted by the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library.

Major topics tackled on day one included the challenges and opportunities associated with archiving e-literature, email (born digital), phonotexts (sound archives), and publisher’s archives. Here, I’m going to focus on addressing the “Born Digital” panel because I have such copious notes on those lectures alone. And let’s face it, can we possibly say too much about this topic?

Lori Emerson (Assistant Professor of English, University of Colorado at Boulder) spoke first, presenting a case study of work on Paul Zelevansky’s Case for the Burial of Ancestors, Book II: Genealogy. The manuscript was created on an Apple II computer, composed of four stories, each in a different typeface. But where things really get hairy is the video game, “Swallows”, on a 5 1/4 floppy disc that is included with the book.

Emerson describes this work as a very early instance of a work that self-consciously uses own text, across different media, to comment on the way the media interacts with the text itself.  I find this a stunning example of, to use Emerson’s words, the “creative possibilities inaugurated by the personal computer.”  She discussed the special challenges of preserving e-literature, which includes dealing with digital objects created on obsolete platforms (not sure what e-literature is? check out the first hypertext fiction: “Afternoon: a Story” by Michael Joyce).  In the case of Zelevansky’s Case for the Burial of Ancestors, a combination of migration and emulation has been used for preservation. Emerson even showed a brief demonstration of the game emulation:

I recommend checking out Emerson’s blog, specifically this post about recovering “Swallows” and instructions for downloading and running an emulation of the game if you want to totally geek out.


Matt Kirschenbaum (Associate Professor of English, University of Maryland) spoke about William Gibson’s “Agrippa”, a 300 line poem, which is a semiautobiographical, literary coming-of-age piece. “Agrippa” was published originally as part of an artist’s book Agrippa: A Book of the Dead in 1992 (for which few copies exist, because few copies were produced) which included a 3 1/2 inch diskette embedded in the back of the book. The diskette contained a poem, and was programmed so that the text of the poem would encrypt itself after a single reading. Kirschenbaum aptly describes this as ”a bibliographer’s nightmare.” How do you preserve something that is designed to be ephemeral?

A plain text version of the poem propagated across the early Internet. Eventually, the website The Agrippa Files was created as an online archive for information, archival documents and tools related to the work. A copy of the diskette which had never been viewed was tracked down, the disk was imaged, and a bitstream (digital surrogate) was created. The original software environment for “Agrippa” was emulated, including the ability to produce the original sounds. Experts have performed forensic analyses on the bitstream, and a graduate information science student at the University of Toronto crowd-sourced a challenge to reengineer the original encryption. Still missing from the puzzle are the full source code and the born-digital clear text (from when Gibson originally typed the poem in 1991).

One really important takeaway from this project, for me, is Kirschenbaum’s realization that “born digital texts are not self-identical” because many permutations exist. Another interesting point is the way in which the Internet functions to preserve things even if they aren’t meant to be preserved; in this case, the plain text version of the poem that was meant to be ephemeral. Kirschenbaum also noted that the Bodleian Library is crawling and archiving all of the pages in The Agrippa Files website.

I also highly recommend checking out Kirschenbaum’s blog and The Agrippa Files site if you are interested in this project.


Fran Baker (Assistant Archivist, University of Manchester) presented a case study titled “Emails to an Editor: Preserving the Digital Correspondence of Carcanet Press.” Carcanet Press was founded in 1969, a small but significant poetry publishing house in the UK.  Their email archive is important because it represents the primary correspondence between CP’s editors, critics, translators and poets. CP had no email policy or records management policy, which made archiving their decades of email correspondence a challenge.

In the course of working to preserve CP’s emails, several mail accounts (PST files) were transferred, totaling 170,000 email messages. The intent was to migrate the material to a new format, but first the significant properties had to be identified; such significant properties in these emails included unusual fonts, font colors, sometimes formatting and layout (such as when poems were included in the text of an email), and even emoticons. A test set of emails was used to test tools for metadata extraction, migration, packaging and ingest. Particular difficulties noted were the fact that the various editors at CP had different personal behaviors with respect to how they handled their email accounts– one used the CP email account only for work matters, and carefully organized all email into folders, which another used the CP email account for all work, personal and other matters, and did not keep the messages organized. Another difficulty relates to copyright and privacy issues — for one thing, an archivist must review emails before they can be made available for public viewing, which is extremely time consuming. For this reason, the archivists focused on preservation over access.

This is a really interesting case study that grapples with some of the major difficulties of email archiving; read more about it here.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Keynote by David Sutton: Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century

This weekend I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century symposium hosted by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale. It was a tremendous opportunity to be with such an eminent group of academics, archivists and curators, all gathered together to present their experiences and views and engage in a dialogue about literary archives, and in particular, the direction of literary archives in our increasingly digital age. I am grateful to all those who worked to put on the event as well as to the speakers, many of whom traveled from Canada and the UK.

I will write more about the various panels, but right now I just want to address the keynote, delivered by David Sutton (Director, Research Projects, University of Reading Library), titled ”The Destinies of Literary Manuscripts: Past, Present and Future.”

David Sutton

David Sutton

Sutton did an excellent job of placing the collection and preservation of literary manuscripts in a historical context. He placed the beginning of literary manuscripts around the year 1700 (pretty recent in the scheme of things), and ascribed this to an elevation in the status of writers, epitomized by world’s first copyright act passed in England in 1709, and also because of changes in the publishing industry which elevated the status of publishing houses. He notes that poetry manuscripts were initially more valued than fiction and were thus more commonly preserved prior to the 18th ct, when fiction manuscripts began to be actively preserved. Lawrence Sterne is perhaps the earliest British fiction writer for whom we have surviving manuscripts; earlier examples are rare and have often survived by circumstance rather than due to action on the part of a librarian or collector.

Sutton articulated many of the qualities that differentiate literary manuscripts from other manuscript types. Significantly, literary manuscripts offer insight into the act of creation on the part of the writer. The manuscripts of Marcel Proust contain a fascinating intersection of form and content, and this intersection is valuable and also distinguishes literary manuscripts from archives in general, whose materials tend to be valuable primarily for their content. Literary manuscripts typically have a higher monetary value than other manuscript types (due to being highly collectible), and there is also a curious tendency for  author’s papers to be split amongst multiple institutions (which can require extensive cross-referencing amongst materials housed thousands of miles apart). The US, UK, Canada and France are the only countries to regularly collect archives of non-nationals, which can result in a writer’s papers ending up quite far away from where the writer actually lived and wrote.

The crux of Sutton’s discussion was that the future of literary manuscripts is more uncertain now than ever before. It is hard to predict the form that literary archives will take going forward — most archives already contain some digital material and in the future many author archives may be entirely digital. For one thing, it is likely that digital objects will be less attractive to collectors than paper objects. I think this is partly due to the maintainence the objects require, as well as the fact that digital objects lack the physical qualities that make books or letters so attractive as display objects. There is uncertainty as to how to assess the value of digital objects (according to Sutton, when auction houses sell hybrid literary archives, they value the archive based on the paper content and the digital material is just sort of thrown in). There is also a question about how scholars and critics will use digital literary archives in the future, and a concern that digital archives which are costly to maintain will draw fewer users. One reason that digital literary archives may be less appealing to scholars (who, for example, may wish to study the progress of a work through a writer’s various drafts) because of the issue of authenticity with born digital materials. Certainly new skills and training will be required. Sutton notes that there is no existing model for sensitizing users to the proper use of these archives, and suggests that there will need to be an enhanced role for archivists in the teaching process going forward.

On a final note, he mentioned something that came up frequently throughout the symposium: the UK-based GLAM (Group for Literary Archives and Manuscripts) which also has a North American spinoff — GLAMNA. I joined the GLAMNA listserv as a way to keep up with upcoming events, etc.

Tagged , , , ,

Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: A Critical Analysis

 This critical response to Double Fold was written for IST 654, Preservation Management in Libraries and Archives, as part of my MSIS program at UAlbany.  It is also available in PDF  in the Portfolio section of this site.

See images of archival newspapers, featuring color illustration, at Nicholson Baker’s site, American Newspaper Repository.


“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel” (1941)

          Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, published in 2001, argues that libraries have neglected to properly preserve original printed materials.  He calls for the preservation of printed library materials in their original format—that is, the preservation of paper in an enthusiastically digital age.  It is without a doubt a meticulously researched and passionately argued work of nonfiction in the legacy of such zealous defenders of print as G. Thomas Tanselle.  I consider Double Fold a valuable, historical exploration of the development of destructive practices in American and foreign libraries over the past several decades and an important call to action to reconsider the effects of destruction in the name of preservation.  Unfortunately, there are flaws and gaps in Baker’s argument—a refrain of “Leave the books alone”—which too often disregards the practical realities of library and archival practice, in which preservation of original artifacts is but one of many competing priorities (135). Furthermore, I think that the very vehemence of Baker’s argument could give many readers cause to discount him as a print sentimentalist, or worse, a hysteric.  I will attempt to evaluate this book as objectively and critically as possible, noting the weaknesses which undermine the effectiveness of Baker’s message.  I think that by sorting through this text, thick with anecdotes, facts and colorful exaggerations, and by weighing the evidence objectively and engaging in ongoing debate, we can eventually arrive at a realistic, improved vision for the future of library preservation.

While he has clearly researched his subject in remarkable depth, the fact remains that Nicholson Baker is not and never has been a librarian; he is a writer with an obvious passion for books, newspapers and history. I heartily agree with James M. O’Toole’s statement that “Double Fold doesn’t consider . . . real dilemmas which librarians and archivists, not to mention researchers, face every day” (387). The major flaws of the book stem from a general disregard for the practical concerns of librarianship and a refusal to acknowledge that even the behemoths of the library world, such as the Library of Congress and the British Library, are not immune to space and budgetary shortages. Baker also fails to differentiate between library and archival functions and tends to suggest that libraries operate as archives or even as museums. His arguments boil down to the simple suggestion that libraries should keep everything, building or leasing space as space is needed; he emphasizes the cost benefit of building additional storage space over microfilming. This seems so simple that one thinks that if it were in fact that simple, that’s the way it would be done. However, one must assume that librarians in general care about the materials they are charged to preserve and don’t take pleasure in destroying them willy-nilly. As O’Toole argues: “Librarians and archivists are not blind to the aesthetics of the materials in their care, but they cannot make large-scale decisions about the management of these collections on the basis of aesthetics alone. There are other competing demands, at least equal in importance to preserving neat stuff” (387). The fact is that libraries and archives cannot operate as warehouses and that there are established practices for collection management in libraries and appraisal in archives for good reason. Paul Conway expresses a similar sentiment: “archivists long ago recognized that their fundamental professional skill is their ability to assess the archival values of large volumes of records and manuscripts and to select the small portion with enduring value” (221-2). Information professionals today are tasked with dealing with an ever-growing abundance of material and must make difficult decisions regarding which materials to maintain permanently.

It was perhaps unwise of Baker to give librarians so little credit throughout the work. In response to a Harvard reference librarian’s statement that newspapers, “just don’t keep,” Baker writes: “They don’t keep, kiddo, if you don’t keep them” (18). Not only does he oversimplify the issue, but he is condescending as well. Whether subtly or blatantly, he accuses librarians of greed, callousness, ignorance, incompetence and dishonesty, describing librarians as a “grotesquely inept” group who “have lied shamelessly about the extent of paper’s fragility” (Baker 36, 41). The double-fold test from which the text takes its name, and by which major institutions have made decisions regarding the fate of brittle books, is dismissed and degraded by Baker as “utter horseshit and craziness” (157). I fear that this attitude is not the most effective way to win over a world of librarians to his cause. If the library preservation culture is going to change, it will be the librarians who change it. It is clear from Baker’s narrative that librarians have made mistakes; his nasty commentary on their character doesn’t add strength to his argument. If Baker truly wants to bring about positive change, I think he would do better to make more of an effort to forge partnerships with librarians and understand why they do what they do—the broad context of competing institutional priorities that play into preservation decisions.

Rather than finding a middle ground, Baker reacts in an extreme way, essentially calling for the indefinite preservation of all printed materials in their original form. Baker’s writing suggests a preoccupation with the marching beat of time, the text inflected with a tragic awareness of the inevitable destruction of all things. While I’m not unsympathetic to this feeling, I found myself irritated by certain of his descriptions, laced with sensory details that seem designed to provoke an emotional response: “You can hear the binding strings pop softly as the blade passes down the inner gutter of the volume” (Baker 12). The quietly tragic tone of his prose occasionally crosses into melodrama, tending to revel in the violent suggestiveness of certain terminology: the historical record is “disfigured”, unbound books are “mutilated”, and the device used to do the unbinding is called a “guillotine” (136, 20, 19). One can imagine Baker’s vision of the unjustly accused volumes being marched to the guillotine as a crowd of merciless, bloodthirsty librarians cheer, “off with their spines!” I am inclined to forgive him these colorful moments because it’s hard to fault someone who cares so deeply about the preservation of the human record, and after all, the book probably benefits from a level of provocativeness—library preservation is hardly a sexy topic, not likely to garner much interest with the general public, and Baker has managed to produce a bestseller. But I think other readers will not be so forgiving, and will be left with the impression of Baker as more a library hysteric than a library activist.

Throughout this text, I struggled to find the right balance in Baker’s message. While he makes a strong case that preservation decisions have not always been given the appropriate level of scrutiny, his solution strikes me as equally problematic. He would also do well to acknowledge that even the Library of Congress can’t be expected to keep everything they acquire forever. No institution has the capacity to grow infinitely. I also think it’s clear that Baker’s vision for library preservation management can and should only apply to a select class of libraries: those which handle materials of artifactual value. I think it would be helpful if Baker made the distinction between appropriate practices in major research libraries and archives versus the public library found in every small town in America. Collection management is a necessary aspect of administering a library, and it is a subject that Baker makes little effort to address realistically in Double Fold. Public libraries, whose primary mission is to make materials available to the public, must deal with constant turnover to accommodate several copies of the newest, most popular books and media and must minimize space taken up by books that are rarely or never checked out. Public libraries also must lend books out of the library, which inevitably results in a large amount of destruction.

Finally, I wish to specifically address some of Baker’s arguments regarding preservation microfilming and digitization initiatives. O’Toole points out that Baker is simply wrong in his assertion that microfilm has ended historians’ use of newspapers, and also fails to realize that historians no longer rely on newspapers as heavily as they once did: “historians have come to rely on frankly more informative sources, such as census and demographic data” for research (388). Additionally, there is a total lack of acknowledgement of the revolutionary improvement in access to rare and archival materials brought about by the new technologies Baker so rails against. Reformatting to microfilm was a start, because microfilm can be shared through interlibrary loan. Digitization, however, has completely changed the game; digital collections made available on the Internet are immediately accessible to anyone anywhere in the world, including people who would never have been able to travel to visit the material in its printed form. Librarians should be commended for recognizing the importance of making available valuable historical materials for any person with access to a computer. I would argue that the value of this increased accessibility is so monumental as to merit the costs associated with digitization. As long as the digital media is maintained, the files could theoretically exist in a usable format indefinitely, whereas paper has an admittedly long natural lifespan, but a limited lifespan nevertheless. Finally, there are now cameras that can digitize materials without unbinding them or damaging them unduly. I believe the ideal strategy, and the very strategy that many institutions already employ, would consist of selective microfilming and digitization combined with retention of as many of the original printed materials as is reasonably possible.

Despite all this, Baker’s argument remains inherently persuasive. The fact is that at some moments, Baker’s zealousness almost begins to seem warranted in light of the seemingly casual attitudes of some who have been responsible for the destruction of so many original printed materials. Early in the text, Baker visits the warehouse home of Historic Newspaper Archives, Inc., which sells original newspapers as keepsakes. The manager, Hy Gordon, purportedly responds to Baker’s concern for these materials with the statement: “Don’t be distressed . . . There are a lot of things more important in life” (Baker 20). Certainly no one is arguing that the destruction of newspapers is a crisis on par with world hunger, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthy cause in need of advocates. Of course, it’s not really fair to direct these sentiments at the Hy Gordons of the world, who are simply in business to sell a product—the real source of the problem is the libraries that give up care of newspapers to such businesses. Yet the general apathetic attitude toward printed materials is noteworthy. I think that in order for preservation of original materials to be allocated higher priority and greater resources, there needs to be greater valuation of these materials, not only by librarians, but society at large. It’s a significant problem for preservation if, as a culture, we do not value these relics as artifacts of our shared past, each printed work a piece of the human record.

I must emphasize that moderated and placed in the appropriate context, I believe there is significance to Baker’s arguments. Double Fold presents striking examples of libraries which have unmistakably erred. Baker convincingly argues, through personal anecdotes describing bound files of newspapers, that the fragility of newsprint has likely been widely exaggerated, although it seems this exaggeration is not quite the conspiracy that Baker seems to imagine. I do think the profession could benefit from additional scientific studies regarding the actual lifespan of paper, including acid paper and delicate newsprint. Baker’s point about high contrast black and white microfilm being an inadequate substitute for many printed works, particularly photographs and color illustrations, is dead-on. Librarians and archivists must ensure that digital surrogates accurately reproduce the content of the original material, and must realize that in some cases, the printed material has intrinsic artifactual value that makes a digital substitute simply inadequate; as Lynn C. Westney argues: “Digital surrogates do not serve as satisfactory substitutes for those engaged in original scholarship. Indeed, digitization provides additional access points to print collections and enhances our print collections. It does not replace them” (10). I believe this is not always the case, but is true of many collections. Baker’s point about the “befuddling divergence” between conservation and preservation is also apt—why some works are treated with the best conservation treatments available, while others are microfilmed and pulped is part of a decision-making process by library and archival staff which could benefit from further scrutiny (107). I believe that it is important for librarians in general to have increased awareness of the artifactual value inherent to original printed materials, because, as Double Fold indicates, we have certainly destroyed some things that we ought to have treasured.

On one level, Double Fold is rooted in a Library of Babel fantasy, an extravagant vision of infinite warehouses holding original copies of every work ever printed. While there is much value to the academic footwork Baker has done in Double Fold to demonstrate exactly what we stand to lose when librarians take a careless approach to preservation, I can’t help but wonder what a different book this would have been if, rather than cataloging libraries’ every past misstep, Baker had analyzed the practical limitations to print media preservation and proposed realistic solutions, working to bridge the gap between the academic ideal and the practical reality. Despite its flaws, Double Fold is a valuable contribution to a lively debate about best practices for library and archival preservation—one that is essential if we wish to adequately preserve our past for the benefit of our future.


Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

Conway, Paul. “Archival Preservation Practice in a Nationwide Context.” American Archivist 53 (Spring 1990):

204-22. JSTOR Arts & Sciences VI. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

O’Toole, James M. “Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate: Double Fold and the Assault on Libraries.” American 

Archivist 64 (Fall/Winter 2001): 385-93. JSTOR Arts & Sciences VI. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Westney, Lynn C. “Intrinsic Value and the Permanent Record: the Preservation Conundrum.” OCLC Systems & 

Services 23.1 (2007): 5-12. Academic Search Alumni Edition. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Tagged , , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 191 other followers