Posted by: Maria | May 10, 2008

Library nostalgia and Nicholson Baker

Emily’s post on library nostalgia brings to mind Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold, a book I had to read when I was in library school. I remember very strongly disliking this book (a sentiment with which my cat apparently agreed, if you’ll note the tattered book cover and the satisfied, unapologetic cat next to it). But in order to recall more specifically my undoubtedly penetrating insights on this book, I pulled out my 500 GB hard drive to retrieve the paper I wrote for my intro to information studies class.

As I reread my paper for the first time in nearly three years, I was immensely amused by the ardor with which I registered my displeasure with Baker’s argument–let’s just say “very strongly disliking” is a generous characterization. In this paper–on which I earned an A, I might add–I describe Baker as “petulantly stomping his foot,” “peevish and pessimistic,” “woefully naïve and absurdly unrealistic,” “too busy insulting librarians and congratulating himself on his noble and heroic deed,” “resentfully grousing,” “risibly ignorant,” “blithely ignoring or distorting the reality of the expenses of library storage,” and, finally, “Baker’s solutions are either nonexistent or useless.”

Wow. I wish I could go back in time to my first-semester-of-library-school self and ask, “Gee, tell me, Maria. How do you really feel about Nicholson Baker?”

What about this book provoked such strong feelings, you might ask, and what does this have to do with library nostalgia? Well, I’ll tell you. Baker’s argument is informed by library nostalgia–more specifically, nostalgia for old newspapers. Most libraries can longer house old newspapers, due to shrinking physical storage capacites and the instability of the medium, and in order to preserve access to these materials, libraries turn to microfilm and digitization. Baker has a major problem with this solution. I don’t dispute Baker’s contention that microfilm and digitized microfilm is not the same has holding the newspaper in your hand, and turning the pages, getting newsprint on your hands, and smelling that newspaper smell. But that nostalgia isn’t enough to justify holding onto old newspapers ad infinitum. The fantasy of what we want the library to be does not match the reality of what the library can actually do.

The central flaw in Baker’s argument, I believe, is that his nostalgia is individual and specific, not communitarian. Baker used his own personal funds, augmented by grants, to purchase old newspapers, which he housed in his own personal warehouse in New Hampshire. Baker states: “Six thousand square feet of space near where I live, with room to shelve all the papers and to hold a small reading room, costs about twenty-six thousand dollars a year to rent—about the salary of one microfilm technician” (269). Baker neglects to acknowledge that if these newspapers were microfilmed, and if these microfilms were digitized and put online, they would be available to a significantly larger group of people. If a researcher wants to view a specific issue of Baker’s repository of the Chicago Tribune, he can travel to New Hampshire and make arrangements to visit Baker’s warehouse. Baker will have to search through his thousands and thousands of newspapers, which he presumably has organized, although since he is not a librarian, probably organized inexpertly, to locate the single issue in question. Alternatively, this same researcher can go to a library that subscribes to ProQuest’s American Periodicals Series or similar, conduct a search, and retrieve the identical newspaper in a digitized version. Baker’s model of preservation makes him a gatekeeper and custodian; digital preservation makes librarians facilitators of access for multiple users. While Baker’s rescued newspapers sit in his personal warehouse, accessible only to him, digital libraries provide much wider access to these material than physical collections could ever supply.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying this: I am not unsympathetic to the nostalgia that inspires longing for the old-fashioned library and its old-fashioned ways. But this nostalgia, more often than not, is incompatible with reality. I think one of the things that frustrated me so much about Baker’s argument was that he is an outsider, a non-librarian, criticizing what librarians do. He asks, “Why can’t our great libraries have the will to find room to accommodate what we so desperately what them to keep?” (36). My answer to that is: we are actually trying to do this, but we also know that physical space and storage is over, and we are in a digital space and storage era. We will do our best to preserve access to old newspapers and books, but you, the user, have to be willing to relinquish your nostalgia and be willing to page through that 1896 issue of the New York Times with a mouse, not your newsprint-stained fingers.

Oh, and by the way: did you notice how I mentioned retrieving my old library school paper from my external hard drive? This is because paper takes up space and eventually falls apart. However, God willing and the crick don’t rise (as they say in these Kentuckian parts), my small, portable, and extremely capacious hard drive will be around for much longer.



  1. Your blog post popped up on my Google reader – and I’m glad it did. My response to reading Baker’s book was much like yours, but not as eloquently written. I’m teaching an Intro to Preservation class at Wayne State University this summer and during our first class we discussed Baker’s “New Yorker” article about his battle to “save” American’s newspapers. Not unexpectedly, it instigated a lot of discussion.

    I must, however, question you on your faith in your portable hard drive’s endurance over paper, even newsprint. Your hard drive is smaller, which is an advantage, but even apart from God’s will and rising cricks, do you know if it will last 100+ years? Do you know if you will be able to read the files in 30 years? Your hard drive might surpass both of those dates, and that would be great, but a lot of newspaper has survived that long as well. Paper is not the only thing that eventually falls apart.

    I’m not suggesting people only trust paper for their personal archives, or only trust computer storage. I am suggesting that all media has a tendency to eventually fail.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment! Nicholson Baker is definitely very provocative, for sure.

    And you are right about the hard drive. I didn’t indicate this in my post, but I really don’t have faith that it will last for years and years, or that if even if it does, if I will still have the equipment to read those files. (I still have floppy disks with all of my high school papers on it, and I might as well throw them away, or use them as drink coasters, because I no longer have access to a computer with a disk drive.) I do expect that my hard drive will be a reliable storage medium for the immediate future, and some time after that, but I know that it is foolhardy to put too much faith in that.

    The problem of reliable long-term storage–and not just storage, but stability of the technologies we use to access storage–is one that I think we are all still grappling with. I remember learning in library school that microfilm is the longest lasting medium, and that it lasts 500 years. (My response to that: how can we possibly know that?) I didn’t take any preservation courses when I was in school, but I am I right in thinking that preservation is almost always a digital pursuit nowadays?

  3. Thanks for this post, Maria. I most appreciate the framing of Baker’s argument as an individualist approach. You’re certainly right that having stuff available digitally or on microfilm expands access–to multiple users simultaneously in the case of digital collections, or to single users one after another in the case of microfilm. These old newspapers he’s on about would surely disintegrate in the hands of a user sooner or later, leaving us with nothing. I guess a lot depends on what you value. If you value things, then keeping the papers is probably the right thing to do. If, on the other hand, you value people and access, suddenly the decision to hoard everything in your storage shed seems a lot less noble and a lot less democratic.

  4. I concur with E: you put your finger on an interesting tension, when you gesture toward the difference between a personal and communitarian nostalgia.

    Your objection to the nostalgia seems mostly an objection to that nostalgia’s effects: it’s non-communitarian because it produces undemocratic access. What if the nostalgia were to become communitarian, though, in a different sense? What if it were a community’s desire to preserve old newspapers? That would be a communitarian nostalgia that produced a non-communitarian effect (still the problem of undemocratic access). I ask only because, as you conceptualize the library, it also seems you conceptualize community. Or what forms of communitarianness count. Or what forms of communitarianness count, at least when it comes to libraries. Communities, that is, should be judged by their effects (access) rather than their collective wishes.

  5. Ah, Tony! An interesting question! I agree that my issue here is in the personalization, the individualization of the nostalgia and of the effects. Is it possible to have collective wishes? Collective nostalgia? Collective memory? And aren’t these the questions that try the souls of memorialists? So contested there’s still a hole in the ground in downtown manhattan…

  6. Emily, I’m grateful for the pressure back. As someone who disbelieves in “affect-nations” (Peter Coviello’s term for far-flung communities forged through the power of emotion), I’m a tad embarrassed to have hypothesized the possibility of communitarian nostalgia. I think what gets me, though, about so many theories of communitarian affect is their presumptuousness. As though, these communities Just Happen (I’d put those 9/11 memorialists in this category). I’d be interested in a communitarian affect that didn’t have this automaticity built into it. I guess the term collective also suggests a kind of universalism to it, when the memories or desires or feelings that get deliberated could never truly result in a collectiveness. But could they result in a democraticness? That’s another term popping up in the conversation here about libraries. Democratic. What might be the meaningful differences between collectivity and democracy?

  7. I think your opinions about both Baker’s claims and this underlying “nostalgia” you see are insipid.

    Why get into the library business at all if you’re not interested in original materials? Or books? Or preservation? Just what is the point– to play around with computers? to be around scholarly things without the work of being scholarly?

    It’s ludicrous for libraries to get rid of books and journals the way they do. It makes no sense. Computerized alternatives are much more cumbersome to use– which you would know, if you ever did much scholarly work, as opposed to management tasks–and face it, that’s what most librarianship is these days. It’s not about knowing things any more.

    What’s behind the urge to preserve is not nostalgia. It’s a sense of usefulness, it’s wanting to have original source materials at hand, and it’s about not needing to throw things out just because it’s the easier thing to do.

    In years to come, this insane over-weeding of older library materials is going to be seen as a real barbarism. Those of you who defend it– or worse, encourage it– will be looked back upon as real morons. It’s inevitable.

  8. hey Jim. I love to engage ideas, and want to engage yours, but I don’t feel like I can do that when your tone is so aggressive. Any way I could convince you to rephrase in a more kindly manner? I’m happy to be wrong, but I can’t be called a moron and seriously talk with you about your thoughts on this.

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