Ten years ago this month, the novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker published an oddball of a book: a non-fiction jeremiad about library policy in the United States called Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. One wonders how Baker sold his publishers on a book about libraries, but he had written a few essays for the New Yorker and other magazines on topics like card catalogs and “books as furniture” that no doubt found a following. Still, library policy? Preservation techniques? Bor-ing. Well, boring to most people; thrilling to me, a bespectacled grad student who had worked in both publishing and in a library and was still trying to figure out how to carve a career out of old books.
At the time, I was enrolled in a graduate course called The Social History of Collecting, and my professor, a curator of rare books at one of the most prestigious libraries in the country, assigned it as a class text. Glancing over my copy of the book now, my spare marginalia belies the power this book has had on me.
In it, Baker describes the widespread demolition of newspapers and books in America’s research libraries, particularly during the 1950s-1990s, when so-called preservation librarians convinced the government, granting agencies, and most importantly, each other that printed materials were disintegrating and the only way to save civilization was to microfilm everything, which often required disbinding and destroying the originals. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote of the book, “It is a blistering, and thoroughly idiosyncratic, exposé of how libraries are destroying our historical records in order to ‘save’ them.” Baker also recounts his own improbable foray into librarianship, after he successfully purchased thousands of bound American newspapers that the British Library decided to sell to the highest bidder in 1999. In many cases, these sets are—amazingly—the only extant copies of the newspapers in actual paper. Joseph Pulitzer’s World, for example.
I don’t recall ruminating about Baker’s book after the semester ended, but when I dug deeper into my thesis research that summer, it became clear that I was a perfect example of those in the scholarly community who have lost much in the microfilm mania of the mid-twentieth century. I was researching the publishing history of classic reprints—reprint editions of so-called classic books, e.g. Penguin, Modern Library, Everyman’s Library, etc.—in the twentieth century. I became aware of a series of articles written by Johan J. Smertenko and published in the New York Herald-Tribune sometime during the 1920s. His column was titled “Twice-Told Tales,” and it focused on newly published editions of classic books, which seemed like something I ought to get my hands on. Without specific dates, though, it was going to require flipping through possibly a decade’s worth of the Herald-Trib. The problem: all the Herald-Tribunes have been discarded (that means thrown out in library parlance). Could the articles be found on microfilm? Theoretically they could, with another year and an extra set of eyes, if whoever had microfilmed it had done a decent job in the first place.
Then I remembered Baker and his list of rescued newspapers. Wouldn’t you know it, he did have the Herald-Trib, a run consisting of 1866-1966, and one, I might add, that is the longest paper run of that newspaper available anywhere. The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library – they only have it on film. So I emailed Baker, of Vox fame, and asked if I could visit. On July 27, 2001, I drove up to Rollinsford, New Hampshire, to an abandoned mill where Baker was storing thousands of bound volumes of antique newsprint. It took about an hour to find my first Smertenko article; in all, three of his articles were used directly in my thesis. All this and lunch with Baker added up to a perfect day for a bookish grad student.
Beyond that, Baker’s words, or maybe more precisely, his actions, stayed with me. Still trying to find my calling in the book world, I look a position in a university library’s preservation department. The only library experience I had before this was as a reference page at my hometown public library. The new job involved preparing books for circulation and assessing minor preservation needs, although it later morphed into a position that entailed assisting researchers with special collections and rare books, organizing archival collections, and writing finding aids. There was much I loved about this job, and one thing I didn’t: discards, a.k.a. deaccessioning.
I had seen discards at the public library, was even allowed to take one home, which still sits on my shelves today: an awful buckram-bound edition of Departmental Ditties and Ballads and Barrack-Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling, with library stamping all over the place. What attracted me to it—it seems strange to admit—was a swastika. I thought it intensely interesting that Kipling had used this symbol before it had accrued so much evil meaning. So I understood the basics of library “weeding;” that brittle or under-used books are methodically divested, sometimes for cash, sometimes for shelf space. Baker discusses this to some extent, estimating that library administrators withdrew approximately 975,000 books from our national libraries, many tossed merely because they were now available on microfilm, and libraries needed the space.
Then I experienced first hand what some libraries are (still) scrapping: An association copy (inscribed by the author to a friend) of a Victorian-era history of New York; an imprint from Ithaca, New York, in its original binding, four decades before Cornell put it on the map; but it was the French-language editions of Oeuvres Completes De Voltaire (1785) that really shocked me. Here are volumes of Voltaire, printed only seven years after his death, four years before the Revolution that his words helped to spark. Yes, some had been rebound, and yes, we were missing a few in the set, but these books had scholarly value. I made inquiries and found that Princeton also had that set in its rare book library, also incomplete. Why would we pitch something that Princeton was keeping in a vault? I emailed Princeton, and the curator there was grateful to take a few of the volumes and complete their set. I took three volumes home myself—vols. 1 & 2 on Theatre and vol. 12 Poemes et Discours en Vers, for no other reason than I couldn’t bear to send them to the guillotine (or, in this case, the landfill). And even though I was low man on the library ladder, I complained to the director about the deaccessioning. A sympathetic book lover, he nevertheless explained that a professional had done the weeding, and that was that.
But each library’s deaccession policy is dependent on the proficiency of individual librarians. Larger institutions may have librarians with real subject expertise, others may not, and many are unaware or hostile to the value of the book as an artifact. So they rely on circulation rates—which seems to me always a bad idea, for tastes seem to skip generations—or tag older books with words like “crumbling” or “fragile” or “acidic paper” in order to hasten their demise, when a good archival folder or box would preserve it well enough. There is actually little on the art of deaccessioning in the professional literature. The title of one that a reference librarian recently sent to me intimates that discarding is something to be ashamed, or at least, wary of: “When Weeding Hits the Headlines: How to Stop Your Library from Making (That Kind of) News,” (2008). I found another, from 2006, published in Library Student Journal, titled “Selection, deaccessioning, and the public image of information professionals: Learning from the mistakes of the past.”
I acquired about twenty ex-lib books from that stage of my career, mostly in good or fair condition – the bindings are rubbed, having been on and off shelves for more than a hundred years in most cases. Nonetheless, they are amazing to consider closely, for example an 1852 pamphlet written by Daniel Webster, An Address Delivered Before the New York Historical Society, on the tattered cover of which James Duane Doty, territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for Utah under Abraham Lincoln, had signed and dated, noting that Webster had sent it to him. Though it is available in both microfilm and as an e-book, according to WorldCat, only about seventy institutions still own the original. Does that make it rare? Maybe not, but perhaps “semi-rare” or “medium rare,” as some institutions now call books of artifactual value that are not quite white-glove worthy.
Others in my “collection” are just interesting pieces of print culture, such as annual registers from early nineteenth-century New York and a palm-sized New Testament belonging to one Drusilla Dashiell, who decorated the endpapers with her personal stamp. I didn’t set out to create a collection of discards, per se, but others have. Michael Zinman, a major book collector, has occasionally come across discarded material from the New York Public Library or the New Jersey Historical Society to add to his collection of early American imprints (now at the Library Company of Philadelphia). The lore surrounding the NYPL is particularly unflattering – its dumpsters were once considered a gold mine for book scouts. And, sadly, this continues in the nation’s libraries. In 2005, the Birmingham Public Library found itself in a public relations morass when one of its most devoted patrons blew the whistle after seeing historical pamphlets and books from the Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature stacked up in the library’s garbage bins. The library stated that they were duplicates, and they may well have been, but why chuck them? I’ve witnessed the same scenario on another institution’s loading dock.
Of course, it’s not about a possible jackpot in the dumpster. It is—to get back to Baker—about preservation of originals, which should be the first goal of research libraries. An institution can’t provide access to something it no longer has, and let’s face it, providing access to grainy, distorted, cropped microfilm is no badge of honor. Providing access to a photocopy or an electronic version of the Oeuvres Completes De Voltaire is admirable, but not at the expense of the eighteenth-century volume. And if the library cannot perform its preservation duty, allow another institution or person the chance. Baker suggests this on the very last page of Double Fold, recommending that public institutions post a list of discards so that other institutions (or dealers or collectors for that matter) have the chance to save them. That was ten years ago. I know of no such resource today, even though listservs and web-based databases would make quick work of it. I have seen book carts with “Free to a good home” signs in some university libraries and attended once-a-year library book sales at others. Some years ago, my undergraduate alma mater, Syracuse University, actually held a book auction featuring discards and donations that they didn’t want. It was both a fundraising and public relations success. I happily over-paid for a two-volume set of Wraxall’s Historical Memoirs and Helen Campbell’s Darkness and Daylight; or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1897).
I take heart in the fact that Baker saved such an important trove of newspapers and that Duke University eventually took the collection to care for it “in perpetuity,” thanks due to David S. Ferriero, then university librarian at Duke, now the archivist of the United States. If he understands why a bulky collection like that is worth keeping, we’re in good hands. Because even though a small renaissance in book arts and book history has occurred in the past decade, as well as a small uptick in the number of library science degree programs that have rare books and archives specialties, one has to wonder where the discards are going, as electronic editions (i.e., Google Books) begin to dominate the academic library in a second wave of preservation re-formatting. I have the feeling that deaccessioned books are still shushed out the back door of American’s libraries, when collectors and readers are quite willing to treasure someone else’s trash.