One of the frustrations of being a librarian — right up there with irritating patrons and not being allowed to drink coffee at work — is the occupational stereotyping. Like nuns and teachers, librarians tend to be depicted in books and movies as elderly spinsters, rigid and frigid. More recently, in a predictable attempt to subvert convention, the slutty librarian trope has emerged — young, hot-blooded, yet not exempt from the cats-eye glasses. As a librarian, it’s hard to see this as much of an improvement.
“Everyone has a librarian fantasy,” asserts the librarian-narrator of Aimee Bender’s story “Quiet Please,” from her collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and then she sets out to prove herself correct, propositioning the patrons at the circulation desk and taking them into the back room. There is, naturally, eyewear to be torn off, long hair to be let down, and an overpowering smell in the mysterious and otherwise off-limits area behind the desk.
Nothing so exciting happened to me during my floundering career as a librarian, though I enjoyed the ceremony of putting on white gloves to handle a rare material. In some ways, I embarked on being a librarian as if it were an extended game of dress-up, attracted more to the stereotype of what it would be like — a quiet, bookish job in pleasant surroundings — than genuine interest in the profession as it really is now. I had once gone to a Halloween party dressed as a librarian — a “real one,” I feel it necessary to mention, not a sexy drunk one with date-stamps on her midriff. The night was a success and may have weighed on my subconscious when, a few years later, I decided to actually become a real one. I already had the right skirt.
In retrospect, this decision seems to owe too much to the Parker Posey movie Party Girl, in which a stint in the library puts a young woman’s disordered life into order. In the movie, the rules of the library straighten out the protagonist, who finds peace and purpose through correct use of the Dewey Decimal System.
Recently, at a professional crossroads in my library career, I read two books that happened to be about young women’s sexual identity and their journeys into — and out of — librarianship. Both books are set in an earlier era, and yet some elements remain extremely familiar.
In Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, originally published in 1958 but reprinted in 2007, Sally Jay Gorce, struggling to make it as an actress, moves to Paris, where she encounters a man so magnetic that when he clasps her hand in a café, she has an orgasm. Unfortunately, such concentrated charisma tends to lead to regrettable acts, and after many adventures, Sally Jay renounces the depravity of Paris and returns to New York to become a librarian: “And (here it comes): a librarian is just not that easy to become…Apparently there’s a whole filing system and annotating system and stamping system and God knows what you have to learn before you qualify.”
Revirginalized by her new occupation, she moves into an all-girls residence hotel and begins shelving books. Within paragraphs she has dropped some on the head of a male patron. The next morning, he asks her to marry him. (“I’m tired of living in sin with you.”) The whole good-natured romp of it bespeaks a clear message: Bad girls are redeemed in the library. Casually promiscuous would-be actresses can be reissued as the wives of successful photographers. No matter how many times an item is checked out, when it returns to the library, its past is wiped clean.
Just as being in the library exerts a purifying influence on hot-blooded Sally Jay, close proximity to libraries paradoxically brings wholesome girls into the orbit of depravity. This is a theme of certain paperbacks on eBay and also more tastefully and literarily rendered of Beverly Cleary’s memoir My Own Two Feet. In it, Cleary, then Beverly Bunn, is ambitious, hardworking, warm-hearted, and sensible — more Beezus than Ramona.
As a library school student, she and her classmates at the University of Washington concoct wholesome cataloguing challenges, like “an imaginary series of books…six volumes, each with a different editor or sometimes two, one of whom wrote under a pseudonym and the other under her maiden name, some volumes translated from foreign languages.”
And yet a less wholesome undercurrent intrudes. When she wears a red dress to work, a man whispers to her, “You look like bait in that dress.” When she’s chastised by the senior librarian for her sloppy handwriting, the word “fetish” is invoked: “I don’t want to make a fetish of printing, but…” Later, working in an army library, the commanding officer, “a huge man, tall and heavyset…sat up, reached out, pulled me toward him so I was standing between his knees, gave me two pats on my bottom, and said, “So you’re a librarian. You can have the job anytime you want it.”
What is most affecting about Cleary’s book is her evocation of the Depression and the grind of survival. In the girls’ co-op where she lived, residents earned part of their keep through chores and were not allowed to sit on the beds, which Cleary explains cheerily was no hardship for her as she never had been allowed to at home either. The idea was not to wear out the mattress prematurely.
Rules like this seem unbearably intrusive now, 75 years later. In the decades since Cleary was a librarian, many aspects of the profession have changed. Books are no longer the only, or perhaps most important, element of a library. Handwriting doesn’t much matter, though competency with technology is useful. But though there is still tension about what the library and librarians of today should be, the connection between librarians and sex is surprisingly persistent.
Licentiousness in an atmosphere of restraint comes through in Tony Hoagland’s poem “Not Renouncing,” which begins:
I always thought that I was going to catch Elena
in the library one afternoon, and she would shove me gently backwards
into the corridor of 822.7 in the Dewey Decimal System,
where we would do it in the cul-de-sac of 18th century drama.
Why in the library? Maybe it’s the covetousness brought out from being around large quantities of things which may be borrowed, and renewed for two more weeks more, but may never actually be possessed? Or, perhaps, in a place where the mind is paramount, the body finds a way to remind you that it’s the one that brought you and will take you home.
Nicholson Baker’s work presents one possibility for where librarians are headed. Baker may be best known for Vox, a phone sex extravaganza, and The Fermata, with its memorable descriptions of non-consensual sex acts with women stopped in time. In 2011, he published House of Holes: A Book of Raunch. Amid these projects, he wrote a New Yorker article lamenting the demise of card catalogs and the 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, which castigated librarians, in entertainingly severe terms, for discarding old newspapers. Librarians were shaken by the book and responded with a tsunami of aggrieved articles, blog posts, and even a pedantic book-length rejoinder, Richard Cox’s Vandals in the Stacks?
Baker, who writes about sex acts with pointillist attention to sensation and pragmatics, brings a similar level of attentive scrutiny to librariana — the card catalogs, annotations, marginalia, paper, and ink. The point of these objects, in Baker’s view, is that they bear up to sustained close attention, that each one is capable of an authentic and individual response that no scan or facsimile can provide. Compared to the original object, using a microfilm surrogate is, Baker quotes, “like kissing through a pane of glass.” There is something pretentiously smutty about the attention he lavishes on a broadsheet newspaper or his painstaking examination of penciled notes on catalog cards, recto and verso. But isn’t that what people want from their lovers, even more than from their librarians — to be examined, catalogued, known?
In Baker’s vision, libraries and librarians are in danger of becoming the opposite — soulless information providers like Siri, or Scarlett Johansson’s breathy-voiced character in the movie Her — efficient, non-corporal, excellent at answering standard reference questions, and only an illusion of humanity simultaneously conversing with hundreds or thousands of others.
In contrast, a more human-centered view of the librarian appears in The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken. Although its protagonist has some stereotypical librarian characteristics — she’s inexperienced at love and lives in a small town, in this case on Cape Cod — McCracken actually was a librarian, and her depiction of librarians is more sympathetic, more nuanced, and more like a job than like a long way of saying “shrew.” McCracken’s book, set in the 1950s and published in 1996, doesn’t so much turn a librarian stereotype inside out as bring us inside to inhabit it. Her librarian, Peggy, starts as a “perfect public servant: deferential, dogged, oblivious to insults…I conformed myself always to the needs of the patrons.” Peggy is serviceable, “a piece of civic furniture, like a polling machine at town hall.” She wears dreary skirts and patched underwear. Although she’s an incisive observer of library patrons — and for a librarian, one of the joys of this book is its sharp critique of the patrons — the library is also her refuge, from relationships and even growing up: “In eighth grade it seemed that puberty was a campaign whose soldiers could not find me — I was…already in a nook in the library, while puberty, like polio, struck the kids who hung around in crowds by the swimming pool or punch bowl.”
The Giant’s House embraces every librarian stereotype, from clunky shoes to coiled bun: There’s a scene where a man pulls off Peggy’s little hat, bobby pins clatter to the ground, and her hair falls loose around her shoulders. “Much better,” he says. But there’s a difference, a subversion. Peggy is complicit in living the stereotype, and it is her own perspective that is for once central and her pleasure in her work that comes through. The satisfaction of giving a patron the right book — one the patron hadn’t imagined existed — that, she says knowingly, is “a reference librarian’s fantasy.”
Inevitably, Peggy falls in love with a patron (the giant of the title, who is just a teenager), gets pregnant, is cagey about the father, and is fired from her job for violating public decency. And yet, however much you love libraries, this is a happy ending. Peggy wears lightly her new status as a scandalous woman, a giant’s lover, a legend in town. After all, who better to know how a story like this must end?
Image Credit: pexels/Anastasia Mya.
It’s difficult to think of many writers who manage to be both as distinctive and as resistant to definition as Nicholson Baker. There’s something attractively paradoxical about his writing, in that the more it changes from one book to the next, the more insistently Bakeresque it becomes. Doing things that are out of character has, in other words, become one of the defining characteristics of Baker’s career.
He made his name in the late 80s and early 90s with The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, two brilliantly essayistic — and rivetingly plotless — novels about the supposedly trivial odds and ends that clutter our everyday lives; he then solidified his reputation as an entertaining innovator with U and I, a hybrid work of autobiographical criticism (or critical autobiography) on his lifelong relationship with John Updike’s writing. He has written a passionate and intensely researched polemic about how the introduction of microfilm led libraries to destroy countless books and periodicals (Double Fold), a work of history attacking the notion that the Allies had no choice but to engage the Nazis in Europe (Human Smoke), and three exercises in balls-out erotic high jinks (The Fermata, Vox, and House of Holes).
His new book, Traveling Sprinkler, is a sequel of sorts to 2009’s The Anthologist, revisiting that novel’s narrator, Paul Chowder, as he attempts to reinvent himself as a songwriter, win back his longtime girlfriend Roz as she prepares for a hysterectomy, and negotiate his own rage at the Obama administration’s drone warfare policies. Alongside his writing of the book, Baker pursued a parallel songwriting project — some of the results of which can be heard here and here.
The Millions: You’re known for writing fiction that largely does away with the business of plot. I’m wondering at what point you realized that this would be the kind of writing you would do. Did this evolve out of necessity, in that you found you had no affinity for highly plotted narratives, or no ability to write them, or was it a more calculated choice?
Nicholson Baker: I like the beginnings of things. The beginnings of a story, of a poem; I like that moment when the white space on the page gives way to actual type. The early paragraphs of a book have a kind of joyful feeling of setting out, like the sunny moment of merging into morning traffic from the onramp of a highway. And then comes the troubling question, where are we going?
In Traveling Sprinkler, though, some fairly big things eventually happen: it’s a love story involving a hysterectomy, which is a bit unusual. And the barn floor collapses, squashing a canoe. Not “minutiae,” whatever that means.
TM: I was intrigued by Paul Chowder’s attendance at Quaker meetings in Traveling Sprinkler. As someone who’s more or less an atheist, I find there’s something very appealing about the way Quakers practice their faith. Where did your interest in this come from?
NB: I’m an atheist, too, I guess, but the word sounds kind of harsh and aggressive, so I generally just say I’m a non-theist. Quaker meeting is a place where people are trying to figure out how to live better lives. There are no rules. There’s an etiquette, that you should wait a while after someone has said something, to give it a buffer of stillness, when everybody thinks about it. That becomes a sort of a white space. The silence is a powerful force that’s working on everyone. When somebody stands and says something, it’s often incomplete, it’s unprepared. It’s provisional — and yet it’s full of love or hope or grief or sympathy — and then other people think about what’s been said, and then someone else stands and adds something more. This goes on for an hour. It’s like hearing the rough draft of a really heartfelt essay collection.
And there are several hundred years of history to Quakerism, with much suffering and martyrdom; the Friends were people who were willing to stand up to, say, slavery, early on, when it was unpopular, dangerous to do so. And of course there’s the antiwar “testimony,” as it’s called, which always gets me. “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world.” Utterly deny. Wow. It turns out to be a testimony you can live by. Not that I go every Sunday. I just love the idea that people are agreeing to be quiet together.
TM: So this is something that has taken a significant place in your life over recent years?
NB: I’ve been going to meeting on and off for about 12 years. Actually I come from a Quaker family, a little bit. My grandfather was raised as a Quaker, but he lapsed. He was interested in Renaissance art, and Quakers were a little suspicious of art and music in the past — or Philadelphia Quakers were, at least. He was a drinker, and they didn’t go for that either. My mother grew up in an unreligious household — so that’s how I grew up. I went to a Quaker college, Haverford College, but never went to meeting there except on graduation day.
I’ve learned a lot from the Quakers about incompleteness, about waiting for things to be sayable, about the possibility of reconciliation — and also about discarding certain trappings of eloquence. It’s certainly had an effect on me. As a person, but also on my writing.
TM: Well, now that you bring it up, there’s been a noticeable progression from your early books — The Mezzanine and Room Temperature and U and I — where there’s a luxurious intricacy to the prose. Whereas your last few books have been characterised by a kind of straightforwardness of address.
NB: In U and I, which is a very baroque book full of sentences that twirl around, I said something about how the metaphorically dense style usually has its big moment early in a writer’s life. After a while, if you’re lucky, the complexity of the semicoloned involutions gives way to something else — maybe to a social attunedness. So I was waiting for it to happen back then, and I think it has happened — although in my non-fiction writing, my magazine pieces, sometimes I’m in the middle of a paragraph and I get that old excited feeling of sliding an unexpected word into place or making a clause swerve to the left in a prosily tricky way.
But the real reason that the recent books, The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler, read so differently is because I wrote them by talking them. Both these books are about the audible human voice, about what comes out of silence. They’re all about meter, and melody, and vocal chords, and intonation, and stereo microphones — and I wrote the books by recording myself in various ways — sometimes with a video camera, sometimes speaking into a mini handheld recorder, sometimes typing as I talked. Most of the first draft of the books came out of my mouth, as opposed to out of my fingers, and that’s really the reason why the prose has a different sound.
TM: Maybe this is something you hear from people frequently, but I have these moments that I think of as “Nicholson Baker moments” that are interspersed throughout my everyday life. There are certain objects, for instance, that when I come across them, I find it very difficult not to think of your books. Things like shoelaces, say, and peanut butter jars and bendable straws. And every time I have to dry my hands on a hot air dryer in a public toilet, I inevitably think of The Mezzanine.
NB: I’m so glad. I’m still thinking about the hot air dryer myself. I feel there’s more to say and yet, damn, I’ve kind of done it.
Many of the things I wrote about in the past were things that fascinated me as a kid. I wanted to be an inventor, and I had long talks with my father about new forms of lift and aerodynamic shapes and how refrigerators worked. I guess I didn’t have enough to do in school, which can be a good thing. When I wasn’t on a bike trip or practicing the bassoon or plinking on the piano I spent a lot of time looking at things around the house — at water flowing from the tap, at the spinning washing machine, at the way the molded numbers in a glass peanut butter jar cast their shadows on the peanut butter inside. In the garage there was a beautiful rusty traveling sprinkler that my father had bought at Sears. I made a route with the hose for it to follow and watched it twirl and chuff away, despite the fact that we lived in Rochester, which is a very cloudy city — the lawn was doing fine on its own.
After The Fermata came out I sometimes took on bigger topics — for instance a destructive episode in library history, or the early years of the Second World War. But I still love the sensation of slowing down a moment of observable time with the help of sentences.
TM: There’s quite a lot of political anger in Traveling Sprinkler. Was this anger part of your motivation in writing the novel, or was it something that seeped in from the outside as you were in the process?
NB: The book began as a non-fiction book about trying to write protest songs — songs that objected to things going on under the Obama administration. And then my character Paul Chowder intruded and everything changed. He reads the paper and he also tries to stay sane, and the news is sometimes so overwhelming and awful, especially when it involves some horrific civilian fatality. How do you keep going if you really open yourself up to a terrible piece of news? And we do; obviously, we keep going. We read something, and we think it’s horrible, and then later that afternoon we’re sitting in a coffee shop and there’s noodly jazz playing and we’re sipping a latté, for God’s sakes. It’s a mixed life. It’s got grief in it, it’s got indignation, and demonic laughter and jealousy, and the desire to find someone to love. Debussy’s sunken cathedral is in this world, too. I wanted to include political grief in something that was recognizably a love story.
Obama’s administration has been a devastating disappointment, in so many different ways. Fanatical secrecy, the persecution of whistleblowers, foreign interventions and arms shipments that make things worse, the quintupling of drone killings — it just has to be said. And it has to be thought about in a way that does justice to the complexity of daily life. How does an emotion of political dissent thread through one’s days? That’s one of the real problems that the novel is trying to address.
TM: In the book, Paul’s creative energies are invested in learning how to use music making software and in writing songs, which is something that you yourself did in the writing of the book. Did you write these songs “in character” as Paul Chowder, or as Nicholson Baker?
NB: There are 12 songs altogether, some love songs and some protest songs, and one that uses a stanza from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and one about a street sweeper. There’s a so-called deluxe e-book version of the book where you can hear them, and I’m also putting them up on Bandcamp — what the hell. I’d posted some earlier attempts under my own name on YouTube, protest songs, but what was interesting was that as soon as I started writing the book in the voice of Paul Chowder I also felt more freedom with my songwriting. I could write the music I wanted to write because it wasn’t exactly me. I became more able to sing with more freedom, I guess, than when I was writing it as Nick Baker the writer.
TM: Have you been nervous about sending the songs out into the world?
NB: Yes, there’s nothing more vulnerable than singing, especially if you’re not a terribly good singer. I can’t describe to you how much more sensitive I am to criticism about these musical attempts than I am about the writing. It’s important to me that the songs are not an embarrassment, that they have qualities that make them song-like. I want them to have a certain level of success. It feels like a new beginning, and I have all the anxiety of being an apprentice. Which is really part of the fun of it. One of the things that’s useful to do, I think, is to cut the legs out from under yourself periodically.
TM: That’s something that you’ve done on various occasions throughout your career — you’ve written books that have caused people to throw up their hands and walk away from you. The Fermata would have been the first time that happened in any kind of significant way, right?
NB: It was really Vox where certain people said “Oh, well the first three books, yes indeed, but Vox is just a tiresome little chirp.” Hey, no, it’s a courtship, it’s a love story. The Fermata, though, yes — that one was received very badly, especially in England. “Whatever you do, don’t shake his hand,” said one reviewer. And the odd thing is how people’s feelings for certain books change over time. I now realize that sometimes critics react at first in a kind of affronted way, and then the book establishes its own position, and people say, “The other books are okay, but The Fermata [is] the one I really like.” It’s been a little confusing, actually, over the years, but also reassuring to discover that a book in the end finds its particular sub-group of readers, regardless of whether or not it was universally shunned at the time.
I always think when I’m starting a new project, “I want to do everything in this book; I want it to cover every single thing.” And it doesn’t ever turn out that way. It can’t happen. But that’s always the emotion I have pulling at me. I try to pour in every charged particle, and say all that must be said, and of course I can’t. Which means that the next book has to be about everything. So I give it another shot, and that one also falls short. Each book is in some way trying to correct the state of imbalance and incompletion left by its predecessors — chugging around the garden, watering new tomatoes.
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.