Paper propaganda and the ‘double fold’ debate

Writer Nicholson Baker accuses librarians of willfully "strip-mining history," in their rapid "assault on paper."

Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker

Mike Selby

It’s what is known as the double-fold.

It is a simple technique used by archivists, museum staff, and special research librarians to determine the brittleness of paper. A random corner of a book or newspaper is folded down and then folded back in the opposite direction. Should a corner be brittle enough to break, the item is deemed too fragile, and is either removed to storage or replaced depending upon the importance and use of the item. If it is one-of-a kind, it has traditionally been scanned for microfilm, but currently it will more than likely be digitized.

‘Double Fold’ is also the name of a book by American novelist Nicholas Baker, based on a speech Baker gave in the early 90s, ‘Double Fold’ is a critical and scathing attack not only on the process described above, but on the people who carry out the test itself. In their efforts of preservation, Baker accuses librarians of willfully “strip-mining history,” in their rapid “assault on paper.”

Baker, winner of the National Book Critics Circle award, and author of “The Mezzanine,” “Checkpoint,” and “The Anthologist,” began his crusade against double folding in 1994, after discovering the San Francisco Public Library had thrown away their card catalogue after the shift to computers. While not quite a crime against humanity, the library was also throwing away their newspaper archives, which for Baker was unforgiveable.

He soon discovered this was a global practice, ongoing since the 1950s, which involved a conspiracy between librarians and governments to microfilm everything, which resulted in the destruction of books before the process (the spines are torn apart to properly scan each page), and the destruction of newspapers after.  According to Baker, the double fold test is merely a deception; the pages have never been brittle enough to warrant their discarding. “Librarians have lied shamelessly about the extent of paper’s fragility, and they continue to lie about it.”

This conspiracy is one backed by “incessant library propaganda,” sponsored by the federal government and the CIA, and is comparable to “secretive weapons procurers at the Department of Defense.” For Baker, the double fold test is “utter horses*** and craziness,” with archivists and librarians complicit in their “slow betrayal of an unknowing nation.” Although meticulously footnoted, Baker’s book doesn’t truly give librarians any type of motivation for their deceptive practices, other than being as a whole “impetuously technophilic.”

There are more than a few problems inherit in Baker’s argument, even after removing the odd conspiracy aspect it. For such a brilliant writer, Baker is somehow unable to separate librarians from archivists. He continually states that librarians are supposed to be “paper keepers.” Yet they are not, and neither are archivists. Historian Richard Cox noted Baker incorrectly “assumes that libraries and archives do not make selections to begin with.” It is not possible, nor desirable to keep every edition of everything printed. The novelist also appears to be unfamiliar not only with the nature of information, but how to make it all accessible to people.

But that has not stopped Baker. Using his own money, he has opened up the American Newspaper Repository, where he continues to “save” thousands and thousands of newspapers, mostly discards from the British Library.

Baker and his allies see it as saving the historic record of our culture. Others see it as hoarding.  Archivist Nancy Boothe publicly wondered if Baker will employ a “staff of librarians who have cataloged all the newspapers, including item-by-item holdings, years published, and variant titles; a number of trained preservation folks, who do emergency — but long-lasting repair on ailing wood-pulp paper so we researchers can handle and decipher the originals; large, strong and literate crew of people who shelve the bound volumes or loose newspapers in boxes, as well as retrieve them for researchers.”  A great question.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library