Double Fold, Double Jeopardy

April 4, 2011 | 3 books mentioned 20 7 min read

coverTen 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.

coverIn 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.

is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places and the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine. Her writing has also appeared in The Guardian, JSTOR Daily, The Awl, The Millions, and The Barnes & Noble Review. Find her at


  1. Just reading this makes me sick! How can so many libraries with employees who must love books, continue to let this happen, and worse, take part? If that was a regular part of my job, I would quit. Good for the wistle-blower in Birmingham, and WHY, WHY WHY is there not a database like Baker suggests for public institutions to list their books? They could go even farther and list all other discards (those that institutions wouldn’t have an interest in) for anyone to purchase for a nominal fee. The public library used book sales are great but why not list books online as well and donate what doesn’t get sold instead of throwing them in the trash!? I’ve gotten quite a few “discards” from library sales and I always hate to see the “Discard” stamp on the inside of the cover – it actually makes me angry. Chances are pretty high that most books have value to someone if they are put out there for people to find. I know that creating an online database and selling books online would cost money and money is already probably not plentiful enough (shamefully) in most libraries but it just seems like the right thing to do. Look at the success of Half Price Books – maybe libraries would actually make some money from selling online! Throwing a book in the trash should be considered a crime!

  2. i agree with JS; this article made me sick as well. I had a minor experience of horror at my own local public library. If I had known the library was going to discard the (fragile) copy of the book, I would have gladly rescued it. But the process is not made public. And no response was made to my inquiry on the fate of the book.

  3. Forest for the trees? Hate on libraries for deaccessioning, but if it weren’t for the libraries, how many of these books would even be around to be discarded? It seems a bit hypocritical to chide libraries for following traditional paths like deaccessioning while simultaneously complaining about their adoption of post-paper technologies.

    Rather than attacking them for practices you dislike, why not work with them to change them? The technology required to create the sort of database discussed is fairly rudimentary, even someone with no programming experience could learn the requisite PHP and MySQL in a couple of weeks, and the hosting probably wouldn’t require more than a basic $10/month plan. If people are passionate about the subject, all they need to do is build the tools. After that, it would probably be a simple matter to convince libraries to use them. All you need to do is present it in a manner that will save the libraries time & money (or even make money) rather than yelling at them that they need to do something. Like most institutions, libraries are slow moving, but they are capable of change.

    Fascinating piece, however. I’ve been on a Nicholson Baker kick as of late but I’ve yet to find my way to any of his non-fiction. It warms my heart to know that he not only felt the need to preserve the newspapers but also believed that they should be put to practical use. (It seems like an obvious conclusion but one that far too many people would likely overrule in favor of keeping the collection pristine. In my opinion, a pristine collection that can’t be used is worthless.)

    And, despite my initial paragraphs, I too felt a sadness in my heart as I read this. I just felt libraries deserved some support as well. Libraries certainly aren’t above criticism but they don’t deserve to be vilified.

  4. As it happens, the University of Michigan’s Special Collectons department held an auction of its duplicates just last week:

    But theirs seems to be a rare example of transparency. This blog post about it on a book-collecting site hails Michigan’s auction as heartening and, alas, rare:

    When I was in grad school at Columbia, some discards used to be placed on a shelf in the cafe for visitors to take home for free. (I once foolishly passed up a complete 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica because it seemed too unwieldy.) They stopped after a few years, and when I asked why, I was told that they decided to donate their discards to charities and schools for book sales.

  5. D’oh! I just realized that the blog post at the book-collecting site I linked to is by, um, the same person who wrote this article, who no doubt subscribes to the Ex-Libris listserv and gets all the same announcements of such sales that I do. Anyway, nice article(s)! (Moderator: Delete both my comments or print both, at your option.)

  6. The author of the article is to be reprimanded for not pointing out at least some of the discussions that have gone on during these ten years after the publication of Baker’s book, not the least of which is Richard Cox’s “Vandals in the Stacks?: A Response to Nicholson Baker’s Assault on Libraries”, a book that runs almost 300 pages in itself. I have read neither, but what are some of the arguments Cox uses to defend the archival profession? Is the case so simple as the author of the article makes it seem? Although it was interesting reading her experience, this article in no way attempts to take a serious crack at what seems to be a one of the most difficult problems to solve in the archival profession: which documents to keep and which to throw away. Dozens, maybe hundreds of books have been written on the subject. It’s just a lot more complicated than the author of this article makes it seem.

  7. I have to come to the defense of the author – I didn’t get the impression when I read this that they were attacking/criticizing libraries and acedemic instiutions for not having better resources to deal with unwanted/uneeded items. Rather it seems that they were just pointing out the issue and lamenting the fact that there seems to be no real, comprehensive resource to address this issue. Most people who love books and libraries are more than aware that libraries are not usually in possession of lots of extra money and time to experiment with and develope new technologies and people in the know are sympathetic to this fact. That doesn’t mean that new ideas can’t be adopted and put into place. This is important, really, really important, more so than I think a lot of people realize. With the advent of e-everything it is more important than ever to protect and save printed materials and there are still things being thrown into the trash! This is a crime – no matter what traditional library practicies are. I am not criticizing everyday people who work in a libraries and placing the blame there, but people in a postion to institute these changes in our libraries need to step up and start making them, or at the very least support those that want to.

  8. What this article doesn’t address is the reality of the library situation. We can’t keep everything. It’s sad. It’s brutal. It’s reality. Archival boxes cost money and take up space. De-aciding paper is expensive and only a few places in the WORLD can do the process. Book mold is a real problem and so is insect damage. Most libraries DO NOT have proper preservation departments and can’t afford them so they can’t fix the books that get damaged and rebinding can ruin many a copy and sometimes is impossible if the print is close to the spine. Leather bound books have to be kept in specific climate conditions or the leather starts to crumble – and you don’t want to know the price tag for climate control rare book rooms.

    Smaller libraries can’t keep books that aren’t circulating. There just isn’t the shelf space. If you don’t like that idea then next time we try and raise property taxes to pay for more public libraries and to increase university funding why don’t you back the bill? Because the only way to keep these items is if YOU pay for it. One way or the other it’s tax payer money that will, in most cases, “save” these books. Trust me, we aren’t at war with the books. We’re at war with politicians for funding so we can KEEP them.

  9. For the record I am a preservation librarian and have worked as such in three different major academic libraries. This is a complex issue and can not be condoned or condemned easily.

    Not every library has a preservation responsibility. For the most part only the larger research libraries have the resources and thus the responsibility falls to them. Of course, special collections libraries also have a responsibility, but that is not what is being discussed above. When special collections libraries withdraw items they tend to offer to other libraries or sell them on the open market. These days, materials that are being microfilmed/digitized of have facsimiles made may (not will) be withdrawn are really at the end of their life. These are not just a little discolored and slightly fragile items, the pages tend to break before it can be folded once and, because of this, they are falling apart. For many of these books, the goal is to preserve the content before information is lost making the entire item unusable. Every attempt is made to retain items with artificatual value. This decision is made by subject specialists, and yes, sometimes mistakes are made.

    The reason only a small set of libraries really attempt to perform preservation activities is solely due to available resources. Physical library collections take up space. A moderated environment is needed to forestall degradation. At some point all of these items will also need some sort of treatment to keep them in patron’s hands. This all costs money, and not just a little bit.

    I don’t mean to imply that there are not problems out there. Preservation for the most part is an unfunded mandate. In 2005 the Heritage Health Index exposed the state of our heritage collections in the United States, and it’s not pretty. The problem is that almost all preservation programs are underfunded and understaffed. Preservation isn’t cheap and holding institutions have limited resources and other responsibilities besides preserving the past. If the most prestigious libraries in the world struggle with funding preservation then it is unreasonable to expect the public library down the road to be able to do it.

    As hard as it is to say, not every item has artifactual value. In the 1840s a series of technologies allowed the mass production of text possible. Before this there is actually contextual information in the materials that enhances the content. Once mass production started, not only were the materials inferior and degrade faster, but much of this contextual information became irrelevant; there are of course exceptions to this. Most books published in the last half of the 19th century can be purchased easily for just a few dollars. This makes it difficult for struggling libraries to pay hundreds of dollars to conserve them and then ongoing costs for storage when use may be once every 50 years. Some items are valuable only for their content.

    My suggestion to those of you who are concerned about this is to visit a preservation department in your area, most will be happy to talk with you or give you a tour. I would also encourage you to donate money to local efforts and spread the word about the threats to our cultural heritage. It is not that libraries are the enemy but rather that we are not supported by the public to acquire adequate funding for our mandates.

  10. What Shannon says.

    Not all libraries have the same mission, and it is dilettantish to suggest that they should. Libraries are beholden to the institutions they serve. Yes, it is important to preserve rare materials, but it is *impossible* to preserve everything, even if one wished to. We do need libraries that *do* preserve rare materials, and it’s great when they work in cooperation. Which they do to some extent. There’s a whole consortium of them.

    Interestingly, the author of this article makes no mention of modern material. Which seems to relate to Samuel Sargent’s comments. Everything old and precious and awesome was, at one time, modern. And taken for granted. If you found it, it’s because someone kept it — not necessarily with any conscious intention. To get an idea of the real scope of the librarian’s struggle, look at the full range of what is in print right now. Now tell us which titles are important to preserve for posterity. And just for fun, visit this blog: For fun, maybe post to your own blog which of those titles you would keep.

    Incidentally, Nicholson Baker may have learned the hard way that maintaining a huge collection of old newspapers requires considerable resources. His collection is now ‘The American Newspaper Repository’, a non-profit organization which he founded, and which is run by volunteers.

    Oh. And Baker wrote an interesting article that ran in The New Yorker on 3 August, 2009 — about his experience reading on his Kindle 2. (Spoiler: He was critical but did not hate it; and seemed at the time to genuinely enjoy reading on his iPod touch.)

  11. As I recall, from my days as a certified medidal librarian, the third edition of the Handbook of Medical Library Practice had a whole chapter on weeding. I believe the author was William K Beatty, although I could be wrong, as I read it many years ago.

  12. I understand… I sympathize… I oversaw the straight-to-dumpster disposal of tons of really nifty depression-era government publications (how to garden responsibly! 1930s driving tips!) that would have done pretty well on ebay, or at least been snapped up in a “free to a good home” pile. Unfortunately, it’s apparently the law that they must be destroyed. We’re fortunate that our library got approval to have a book sale, but previously – and in several other cities to this day – public library books are legally government property and are governed by the same rules and legislation, so they can’t sell or give the unwanted materials away. I’m at an archival institution that functions as part of a public library, by the way. In the past, there have been PR stinks when a truly unwanted duplicate has been put in the book sale and someone from the Friends group or the media decides to make a public fuss about how we’re destroying our heritage and don’t deserve support if we’ll just discard things, so, for a few years, third and fourth copies of books we don’t want were put in the trash rather than the sale, even if they’d have sold well, just to avoid those troubles. It’s not easy…

  13. Great, great post.

    Baker’s book is a masterpiece, really, and the hostile, arrogant response he got from the library community really had to be witnessed personally to be believed. They just accelerated their “de-accessioning.”

    Here’s a modern-day example. These librarians are nutcases for sure:

    And the incredible condescension and arrogance, like THEY are the ones who get to decide what’s valuable !

    No one is saying that libraries should keep everything, but this current zeal for destruction is insane. A true age of barbarians– and they will be seen as such in the future.

  14. I am the writer of the essay Bob A. referenced above, the “nutcase,” if you will. I have to address this point: “and the incredible condescension and arrogance, like THEY are the ones who get to decide what’s valuable!”

    Well, yes. I am the sole librarian in this library. I have a limited amount of shelf space. I buy new books for my students all the time. It is my job to determine what should fill those shelves. Every decision to purchase or to discard a book is a decision about what is valuable, not in an absolute sense, but for this collection at this time.

    Any high school library’s collection policy is to have books that support the curriculum of the school and the students’ aesthetic reading needs. A book that doesn’t meet either of those is out. It’s not anti-book; it’s pro-book, as my essay explains.

    When I discard a book for *this* collection, it is a decision about the book’s appropriateness for *this* collection. It is not a statement about the worth and value of the book for everyone for all time. If you want to keep it, more power to you.

    But yes, it is a librarian’s decision, one for which s/he has professional training, to keep or discard a particular book. It’s not arrogance. It’s in the job description.

  15. You have got to be kidding me (especially Bob A, with his comment “this current zeal for destruction is insane.” Bob, are you a librarian? Have you witnessed librarians frantically pulling books off the shelves and throwing them into trash cans or lighting them on fire with the zealousness of a madman? Where are you getting this?). As a librarian, I can tell you that we TREASURE books. We worship the written word. We also live to provide relevant, accurate and sought after information to our patrons AT NO CHARGE TO THE PATRON. If a book is outdated, inaccurate or hasn’t circulated in years, it’s going to have to go. Hopefully it can be sold at a booksale (as mentioned in the article, many libraries have them. The one I work in has a monthly sale) but, if not, it has to go. If you want to do something about this, lobby for more funding for public libraries. To see great examples of the necessity of weeeding, check out Better yet, if you want to talk about waste, address the stores and restaurants that throw out tons of food every night while people go hungry in the same city.

  16. Obsolescence and stress or acquisition policies in sync with deaccessioning policies ?

    If 80 % of loans are for the same 20 % documents (Trueswell, 1969), i think we can afford some local and regional planning by now.

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