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Subject: Nicholson Baker article

Nicholson Baker article

From: Colin Webb <cwebb>
Date: Thursday, October 19, 2000
The Nicholson Baker article in The New Yorker has come to our
attention in this country (Australia) partly though our own
interest, and partly via inquiries from researchers keen to know if
similar things have happened to Australian newspapers.

I don't intend to comment on anyone else's practices--that's usually
their business, subject to circumstances that I know nothing about.
However, reflecting on our own experience, I must say that Mr
Baker's article struck a responsive chord. It raises issues that are
most important for us to discuss and learn from.

Trained as firm believers in the "newsprint won't wait" school, at
the National Library of Australia we  have often been dismayed to
see the results of rapid deterioration, but just as often we've been
surprised to see 100 year old issues that were just fine. Our
conclusion has been that newsprint degrades at variable rates, and
that it is worth copying the information on it to a more stable

At the same time, we've seen some great microfilm, but we've also
seen some that was shocking--and a whole lot in-between. While the
worst is usually (but not always) picked up in even rudimentary
quality control checking, it's that in-between film that so often
finds its way to the shelves and is offered to readers, most of whom
probably don't feel encouraged to say: "I wish this was better".

We have tried to address quality concerns by raising the standard of
filming, project design, specifications and project management, and
we have come a long way in the past 10-15 years in this country. But
I'm certain we all hold significant collections of film that are
quite inadequate, simply because most institutions do not have the
resources to check thoroughly for errors in the film they either
produce or purchase from someone else.

The Baker article reminds us that as well as quality issues, even at
its best microfilm can't be said to replicate all the values of the

While the article seems unfair at a number of points--some of them
covered in Winston Tabb's letter--there are things here that we need
to listen to and consider, things that are relevant to preservation
management, at least in Australia.

Whether or not it is a fair basis for criticism, it has been
difficult to manage the expectations that have arisen (created and
nursed along by both the imaging industry and by our own profession
at times) that copying is the only cost-effective way of preserving

Our preservation profession has sometimes found it easier to enlist
support by telling half-truths (probably nine-tenth truths). We did
it with environmental conditions for storing collections, we
probably did it with accelerated aging, and it looks like we might
have done it with microfilming. We can see the same phenomenon with
digitisation, although the "digitisation = preservation" lobby is
largely coming from outside the preservation profession.

Managers with too much to do, "80/20" agendas, and a host of new
pressures piling up, tend to simplify the evidence, look for the
broad approach, and aren't very interested in what look like
redundant solutions. As preservation managers we fall for this, and
so do our senior executives. Who wants to hear that you might need
to store newspapers in the dark, taking up ever increasing space,
quite possibly in controlled conditions, and also microfilm them to
give users access? And to keep three generations of the microfilm,
stored in very high quality conditions?

We're fortunate here--while we've invested heavily in microfilming
(and are about to in digitisation), so far there has not been a
strong push to destroy newspapers. Although practices vary,
guillotining spines to improve the speed or ease of copying is not
considered acceptable practice here for rare material. To the
contrary, we have a National Plan for Newspapers (the NPLAN), which
tries to address these issues in a sensible way. The basic aims of
the NPLAN include the preservation of at least one paper copy of
every newspaper issued in the country, preferably in the State or
Territory in which it was published, or by the National Library if
the title has national coverage.

Lest anyone accuse us of complacency, we do recognise that there are
some sharp issues not addressed by such a broad aim, such as how,
for how long, and how much we are willing to spend to do it. We're
grappling with those issues, and we're grateful to Nicholson Baker
for reminding us that they haven't gone away just because we've got
a whole lot of microfilm--or digital images--available for our
readers to use.

Colin Webb
Preservation Services Branch
National Library of Australia
Canberra   ACT 2600
+61 2 6262 1662
Fax: +61 2 6273 4535

                  Conservation DistList Instance 14:25
                 Distributed: Monday, October 23, 2000
                       Message Id: cdl-14-25-002
Received on Thursday, 19 October, 2000

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