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Mon, Oct. 29th, 2007, 10:50 am
"Preserving" vs. "Conserving": Librarians and their hatred of paper

I've been reading Nicholson Baker's book "Double Fold" recently. It's about the war on paper being fought in libraries across the country. Many people (myself included) believe that libraries (at least research libraries) serve to hold and maintain books, newspapers, and magazines. Sadly, this has been untrue for at least the last seventy or so years. Starting in the 1930s, libraries began to focus on reducing the amount of material they hold rather than increasing their storage capacity. They started with newspapers.

Everyone who has done any sort of research involving newspaper articles in the last 20 or 30 years is very familiar with the incredibly annoying spools of microfilm that are the bane of researchers across the world. There are some advantages to microfilm- they're small and thus take up less space than stacks of papers, and you don't have to worry about library patrons accidentally tearing up your newspapers. There are some distinct disadvantages, though. They're a pain to use. The image quality is extremely poor. The scanning work is often sloppy, with parts of pages missing or out of focus. Microfilm images from popular events can fade out with use (as more people look at the film image of the newspaper page, the bright light and heat from the film reader fades the image- or it can even melt the film). Photos are reduced to blobs. And the spools of film themselves are often made with substances that corrode the film over time, leaving iibraries with drawers of incredibly expensive but useless dissolved film.

Now, when you're staring at a blurry image of a newspaper article in the microfilm reader, you might reassure yourself that the actual paper copy of the newspaper is out there in the world somewhere. More and more newspaper archives are now available online as higher resolution PDFs, and surely these old historic newspapers will be rescanned into something much better than the crappy microfilm images, right?


In order to scan the newspapers, they were cut up into their individual pages so they could be scanned. Then they were usually thrown away. And, as part of the war on paper waged by librarians across the country for the past century, once a newspaper was available on microfilm, other libraries would throw away their physical archives and replace them with microfilm. Many historical newspapers no longer exist- we only have the poor microfilm copies. When it comes time to make PDF archives of these newspapers, they'll be made from the poor microfilm copies. Even the Library of Congress and British Library have dumped tons of newspapers from their archives to be replaced with microfilm. You know those companies that will sell you the front page of a newspaper from the day you were born? The newspaper you get might well be razored out of a volume the Library of Congress sold them.

Trivia: The New York Times is printed in two editions: Local and National. When you go to the library and look at the microfilm of the New York Times, you're looking at the Local edition. The National edition is not microfilmed or archived. Research librarians have had to tell researchers that "Yes, I know you read that article in the Times, but it no longer exists".

Why didn't libraries keep paper copies? Because they didn't want to have to store it. Up until the 1930s, when library collections grew larger, libraries would build more buildings to hold them. In the 30s, tighter budgets led librarians to look at ways to prune their collections and avoid having to build more buildings. This is where the story of "brittle paper" came from. Librarians claimed that old books and newspapers would turn brittle with age (and acid paper). If they didn't archive them to microfilm now, they argued that we'd completely lose the information. Documentaries like "Slow Fires" hyped up the idea that great and historic books and magazines were literally turning to dust. Unfortunately, as Baker points out in his book, the brittle book hype was just that- hype. Old newspapers and books are delicate, certainly. But they don't turn to dust. And they don't crumble under normal library use. Oh, and the one thing that librarians don't tell you about is that in order to "save" these newspapers and books, they must destroy them.

I mentioned books. Having now destroyed historical newspaper archives, librarians then turned their eyes on doing the same to books. Old library books may have historical value, but they're infrequently used by library patrons. Librarians look at the shelves holding old books and see wasted space. So, now some of the nation's leading librarians decided to start microfilming books. In order to do that, however, the bindings are cut off with a bandsaw, leaving loose pages that can be fed to an automatic scanner. Once the book is scanned, it's usually pulped. The Library of Congress alone has scanned and thrown away tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer-owned books (Baker's estimate). And of course, once a book is available on microfilm, many other libraries will dispose of their copies.

Trivia: I've always heard that the Library of Congress, as the national library, gets a copy of every book printed in the US. This is true (well, probably _almost_ every book), however they throw out most books. The only books the LoC is required by law to keep in its archives are copyrighted but unpublished books.

More trivia: Baker points out that many large libraries have a department that maintains their archives. Within such departments, there are often two different groups: Conservation and Preservation. At first, the functions sound redundant.... but this isn't true in practice. The folks in the Conservation group are the ones that rebind books. Their aim is to make sure the books on the shelf are in useful condition and last as long as possible. The Preservation group is a little different. They frequently don't care about the book itself, they just want to preserve the information in the book. Whether this involves transferring the information into a form that's not useful isn't their concern, nor is it their concern whether the primary information resource (the book itself) survives the transferral process.

I don't want to sound like a luddite- I think PDF books, newspapers, and magazines are great things. They make it possible to do body text searches that were impossible ten or so years ago. But I think it's absolutely criminal the way librarians have treated historical documents. Archiving technologies change. Keeping the originals around makes it easier to upgrade to a newer and better system in the future. Color newspapers that were archived onto crappy microfilm in the 1940s and 50s and then thrown away can't be re-scanned into a high resolution color PDF, because they don't exist anymore. Yet at the time, all archivists could think of was how microfilm was a cool new technology... they couldn't consider what might come next that would let them do a better job.

This morning I sent emails to archival and reference librarians at Georgia State University, the University of Georgia, and the Atlanta History Center. I also emailed customer service for The Stacks (AJC). I asked each of them if they have physical copies of Atlanta newspapers or only microfilm. We'll see what they say. In Baker's book, he mentions that many newspapers threw out their own archives and replaced them with microfilm. I have a sinking feeling that the AJC probably did the same.

Google, Microsoft, and the Internet Archive are scanning lots of old library books. I wonder how they scan them- do they cut them to pieces or do they scan them in a nondestructive manner? Hmm.

Google's cache of the New York Times' review of the book is here

Tue, Oct. 30th, 2007 09:48 am (UTC)
(Anonymous): Cutting up books

You'll be glad to hear that one of the new technologies is scanning machines that turn the pages of books, so they don't need to be cut up to be scanned. But thebooks might be thrown out afterwards anyway, either by the institution that did the scanning, or other institutions may throw out their copies, because their copies are no longer 'needed' in physical form.