Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper
by Nicholson Baker
New York: Vintage, 2001.
Three things I did not know before reading Double Fold:
1: The idea that the acidity in wood pulp paper will turn books into dust is hyperbole. The paper may yellow, the bindings may be very fragile, and a very, very small percentage of paper may crumble if you scrunch it up into a ball (when was the last time you scrunched a page of a book you were reading or using at the library into a ball?), but it will not turn to dust. Your dead tree books are safe.
2. In the 1850s, paper was made from rags, and there was a global rag shortage. The New York Tribune and Sun both reduced their size in response to the increasing cost of paper. Dr. Isaiah Deck, an American geologist, proposed a novel solution: unearth the millions of mummies in Egypt, unwind them from their winding cloths and ship the linen to America. And they did. On July 31, 1856, the Syracuse Daily Standard printed this: “Rags from Egypt.–Our Daily is now printed on paper made from rags imported directly from the land of the Pharaohs.” Victorian imperialism at its strangest.
3. In the early 1970s, in an effort to de-acidify its books, the Library of Congress put them into a vacuum-sealed room with DEZ. DEZ, diethyl zinc, it highly reactive with water. It would be sprayed over and penetrate closed books in search of the trace amounts of water in them. It was thought to be the miracle cure for acidity because “If all went well, the diethyl zinc would bind with oxygen in the water and turn into zinc oxide. Zinc oxide is a mundane, mildly alkaline substance; … it would remain fixed in the paper’s fibers as an ‘alkaline buffer,’ ready to obliterate any acidity that might ripen in time” (113). Here’s the catch: DEZ bursts into flame when it comes into contact with air, there being so much moisture in the air that it causes an explosion. Highly combustible chemicals used to preserve books. Only in America.
You may note from the picture of the cover of the book that its print is blurred and the image imperfect. This is what reading microfilm is like, and it is the transferring of millions of pages of print to microfilm in the name of preservation that Baker decries. The effort to “save” newspapers and books by disbinding them to transfer them to microfilm or, more recently, to scan them, is destroying forever the original print newspapers and books. Neither process preserves faithfully the image of the original. Poor quality, lost pages, and the destruction of the print original are all, from Baker’s perspective, capital crimes of the multi-million dollar effort to “preserve” newspapers and books.
Baker is impassioned. He has invested tens of thousands of his own dollars in buying and preserving original print runs of American newspapers. He is well versed in the follies of libraries’ attempts to save space, dollars and books. I am sympathetic to his cause, but I found it so very, very difficult to finish this book. November was supposed to be my month of books about libraries. It became, instead, my month of falling asleep to Nicholson Baker. It became the month of, “Anything but that book, please.” He is so earnest, bless him, and I can see that he has invested so much work into this book. It is just so very, very dry. There are only so many ways that you can say “microfilm is a poor substitute for the print original.” It is an important message, and this book deserved the strong hand of an editor with an eye to pulping half of its pages.