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Subject: Nicholson Baker article

Nicholson Baker article

From: Mitchell Bishop <mbishop>
Date: Wednesday, October 18, 2000
I recently returned to school in what can only be regarded as
"mid-life" and was required to read Baker's article for one of my
introductory classes in a graduate program in Library and
Information Science.  After more than 20 years in the field of
libraries and conservation I read the article with a feeling of
nausea and what I can only describe as guilt or regret. I clearly
remember the arguments advanced in favor of microfilm and remember
attending a microfilming workshop at the Library of Congress. The
people conducting the workshop were not evil zealots but sensible
people trying to deal with what they regarded as a very serious
problem. At the time, I was convinced that microfilming was clearly
the answer and that disposing of newspapers was not something even
worthy of discussion. However, personally, I have not been involved
in a project involving the microfilming and disposal of newspapers
or of any other material. I can say so now with a personal feeling
of relief.

I also remembered having access to an entire run of Punch and more
pedestrian newsprint publications in my early college days. Going
through them was a revelation to me and opened up past worlds with a
degree of intimacy that was almost inconceivable, and yes, they were
in fine shape. The thought of this material being reduced to
microfilm is truly sickening since it ignores the tactile qualities,
color and many other important aspects of the format. After all, a
newspaper is not simply a source of information. Many of them were
in odd formats and had many quirks that would not reproduce well. I
used a great deal of microfilm then and regarded it as a necessary
evil but a good way for our library to acquire materials that would
have been impossible to acquire in their original form. However,
this is a separate issue. I think most of us now regard reformatting
as being a tool for providing alternate means of access or reducing
the wear and tear on originals. I suspect that destructive
reformatting is now a thing of the past.

Since my days at the Library of Congress microfilming workshop I
have come to firmly believe that originals should be preserved
whenever possible and that destructive reformatting processes are
not acceptable except under very, very unusual circumstances. We are
clearly unable to anticipate what will be important in the future
and caution is in order. Too many times, we have been led astray by
what turns out to be temporary trends in treatment and limited
understanding of materials issues. Another article by Baker
"Discards" bemoans the destruction of card catalogs in libraries,
which I also used to believe was a subject not open to discussion.
Since then I have changed my mind about this as well.

I have no desire to punish those who I used to agree with and I
don't think accusations or self mortification are in order. Baker's
article is fair comment and acts done with the best intentions are
not somehow shielded from future criticism. Preservation and
conservation do take place in a social context for better or for
worse. The people who made these decisions did so thinking they were
doing the right thing at the time except for a few cynics with a
financial or political motivation.  However, I think there is
something to be learned here. Perhaps we should look to other areas
of conservation and learn from them. For example, those
archaeological objects that have been treated with substances
rendering them useless for new methods of analysis come to mind
immediately. I think we need to be more prudent and to have a
greater regard for originals even if we view them as doomed or a
nuisance. Institutional fads come and go and unfortunately
scientific evidence that appears to be unshakeable is sometimes
later badly shaken and destroyed. A review of the science around the
preservation of newsprint and the storage recommendations for it is
probably in order in light of this discussion.

I doubt that Baker's article will lead to wholesale recantations but
I suspect I am not the only who regrets an earlier point of view. I
imagine many others will do so quietly.

Mitchell Hearns Bishop

                  Conservation DistList Instance 14:25
                 Distributed: Monday, October 23, 2000
                       Message Id: cdl-14-25-001
Received on Wednesday, 18 October, 2000

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