Books Left to Crumble

The Columbia University School of Journalism was endowed by Joseph Pulitzer, the famed publisher of The New York World. Every year, it distributes the Pulitzer Prizes. In 1997, Columbia celebrated his 150th birthday with Joseph Pulitzer Day, complete with cake and speeches. Our library houses a significant portion of his papers, including an extensive collection of documents relating to the World.

If you go to Butler Library, you may search the shelves for hours, but you will not find the New York World. Gone are the bound volumes, preserving the faded newsprint upon which Pulitzer's fame and fortune were founded. No more are the beautiful color advertisements, the full-page illustrations in a dozen fantastic shades, and the promotional inserts on hard stock. They were "deaccessioned," in the technical jargon of the library trade, and replaced with grainy black-and-white images on microfilm. A half-million pages of newsprint were discarded for a few drawers of film in small cardboard boxes.

Columbia was hardly the only library to junk its newspapers. In fact, almost every major research library in America did the same. Along with them went nearly a million books, all destroyed in the name of preservation.

If Columbia was not alone, though, it was only because other libraries across the nation followed our lead. Two University Librarians, Warren Hass and Patricia Battin, led a crusade to preserve printed matter for the coming century. Driven by their fear that the acid-paper on which the books and papers were printed would disintegrate with time, they pushed for an emergency preservation effort.

Battin, University Librarian for nearly 20 years, became the President of the Commission on Preservation and Access in 1987. From that position, she led the charge to replace printed matter with microfilm. The key to her success was the sense of urgency that she was able to convey. She spoke of 10 million volumes that would turn to dust within 20 years. "The brittle book problem," she told Congress, "represents a serious threat to a fundamental national asset."

Battin even had a definition of a brittle book, so that librarians could spot the problems on their shelves. Based on a study done at MIT, she recommended the "Double-Fold Test." At Columbia, this meant folding down a page three-eighths of an inch from the corner, bending it back the other way, and giving it a tug. The process was then repeated twice more. If the corner broke, the book was deemed too brittle to last. Librarians culled their collections of books that failed the double-fold test--selecting some to be microfilmed, and deaccessioning the others before they could even disintegrate on the shelves.

Across the country, librarians found themselves provided with congressional funding to microfilm books, accompanied by Battin's admonitions that books were disintegrating more quickly than they could possibly be microfilmed. Faced with an apparent crisis, librarians threw caution to the wind. They sliced open the bindings of books, so that the pages could be laid flat, shaving valuable seconds from the process, but ruining the books.

Slowly, though, the sense of crisis abated. Librarians began to notice that the books pulled from their shelves had not, in fact, crumbled to dust. Readers, it was pointed out, do not fold pages over and over as they read; they simply turn them. Pages that broke under the stress of the double-fold test could still be turned hundreds of times. Gradually, they began to retain the volumes that they microfilmed, sometimes on the shelves, but more often in storage facilities, where they remain for future generations.

Nicholson Baker, a historical novelist, has chronicled this story in Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. The book has attracted considerable attention, including a recent article by Robert Darnton in The New York Review of Books. It uses reams of evidence to offer a damning indictment of the profession, unbalanced by reflection on the causes of the problem or the motives of the major actors. It points out that all too often, pages were skipped, the microfilm cameras were not properly focused, or the film itself was not durable. Where the originals were destroyed, the documents are gone forever.

Even when the process was executed flawlessly, it could not preserve the sense of the scale, the tactile qualities, or the coloration of the original documents. Any researcher who has ever spent hours watching reels of microfilm spin at a nauseating speed can appreciate the magnitude of the loss.

It is not enough, though, to mourn the past. There are concrete steps that must be taken to remedy the situation. Columbia should publish lists of its discards, to subject the process to public scrutiny. It should pledge not to destroy materials in the process of preserving them. Most importantly, it should once again assume a national leadership role.

Just a few weeks ago, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), the successor to Battin's organization, released a new report for public comment, effectively reversing its earlier positions. Elaine Sloan, Columbia's current Librarian and member of the CLIR board, should wholeheartedly endorse those guidelines, and urge others to do the same.

Patricia Battin and her colleagues acted in good faith. They were beleaguered by a chronic lack of funds and space, and thought that they had found a solution. That good intentions proved insufficient ought to be a valuable lesson. As we enter the digital age, we are likely to read another round of obituaries for the printed word, and hear new calls to save space by transforming books into bytes. We should proceed cautiously, always mindful that the cure may be worse than the disease.

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