in this issue:
Nicholson. (2001) Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Malia
Vera, trans. (2001) Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual
Boutaneff, Vera, trans. (c2001) Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses_.
Reviewed by Lambrini Papangelis
Nicholson. (2001) Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. New
York: Random House. 370 pgs. ISBN: 0-3755-0444-3 $29.95
Baker has discovered a great
franchise-attack libraries, and then produce a book about it that they
will have to buy to satisfy patron demand. Truth be told, purchasing this
book will also explain a lot about Mr. Baker, librarianship but not librarians,
the passage of time, and the ongoing Zeitgeist shift that is modern life.
Mr. Baker's premise is that American libraries have destroyed their newspaper
(as well as book) collections over the last 50 to 60 years by converting
them to microforms. Further, this is a terrible thing because a major
part of our American culture has also been destroyed. For Mr. Baker, no
explanation can be good enough, no choice that does not reflect his point
of view can be valid, and those librarians who chose to convert newspaper
collection to microforms are near demonic in their stupidity.
The research for this book is pretty solid as long as it supports Mr.
Baker's thesis; and librarians have made some very poor choices over the
past decades. The history behind the shift, and the discussion of personalities
involved are enlightening, especially for librarians who never knew the
background behind the shift, or the problems encountered along the way.
For instance, the title, "Double fold" is taken from a test
created to simulate wear and tear on newspapers and to estimate shelf
life. Newspapers have always operated on a small margin for profit, and
necessarily have been published on cheap quality paper with equally cheap
ink. Both contained, for many, many years, acid that worked to destroy
the paper over time. The test was randomly performed and reinforced what
the testers wanted to hear--that abused and exposed acidic paper disintegrates
into dust over time.
The author is correct in saying that frequent folding and exposure to
light, air, and other environmental stresses is not the norm for most
newspaper collections. Most, still extant, are stacked or shelved in reasonable
temperatures and air conditions, remaining undisturbed for years. They
still can be very usable. He is also correct when he decries the fact
that microforms are 95% black and white, which means that color photographs
and illustrations, especially those in the newspapers from the 19th and
early 20th centuries converted to microfilm, have lost some of their import
and value. And Baker is very eloquent when discussing the destruction
of the paper copies that has gone on all over the country. He makes a
valiant cry for at least one library to maintain a comprehensive American
newspaper collection in it's original format.
Librarians indeed looked before they leapt, as far as microforms go. Early
versions were poor quality and did not hold the images placed upon them
consistently or well. Until the format for either 35mm film or microfiche
was accepted as the standard, there was a plethora of formats. How many
libraries all over the country hold the Evans collection of the Early
American Imprints on opaque microcards for which the readers are no longer
available or repairable, and to begin with never did a good job? In light
of this fact, libraries that invested in this particular collection are
now faced with either purchasing very expensive conversion equipment to
bring these images to a computer screen or paying a commercial vendor
for on-line access.
Perhaps librarians were guilty of some hubris, some arrogance, as Mr.
Baker states. However, Mr. Baker attacks certain individuals viciously
in spite of the fact that they were using their best judgment at the time
a decision needed to be made. The medical world used to prescribe x-rays
to deal with tonsils and adenoids, until they learned more about the insidious
effects of radiation. Librarians, en masse, converted newspapers to microforms,
not to stop access to culture, but to preserve information. Some of the
money-raising tactics and campaigns were unethical and ingenuous at the
same time. Thousands and thousands of newspapers did not, would not, and
are not disintegrating into dust every single day, because it takes a
long time-unless the materials are abused and exposed to the elements.
A page corner folded back and forth 500 times will of course break quite
quickly. The sense of urgency that prompted the NEH and the Library of
Congress, amongst others, to fund the conversion projects was at best
hyperbole, and at worst, incredibly self-serving poor judgment, but by
no means a crime.
There are three things wrong with Mr. Baker's treatise. First, he never
makes the case for newspapers as the repository of our culture. He assumes
that right-minded people simply agree. Second, he is naïve as to
the nature of libraries and their purpose. It is romantic to think that
libraries are the repositories of culture and society, and that every
book or newspaper has value. He sees libraries and their collections as
Dr. Pangloss saw the world. Third, Mr. Baker does not understand the nature
of librarianship. He does not appear to know what it takes to be a librarian;
nor does he appear to understand the guiding principles and constraints
that govern decision-making.
Newspapers are commercial ventures that make money by feeding on people's
need to know facts and their desire for entertainment. While some of the
great writers of the last 175 years have written for newspapers, and certain
subjects and articles in newspapers have changed history, the rich tapestry
of American culture is not necessarily to be found there. More often than
not, it is accidental to the purpose and the process of newspaper publishing.
Rather, newspapers are markers. They report details, facts, and opinion,
but they do not disseminate art very often. For example, the world of
academic research is not big enough, nor frankly profitable enough, to
justify saving everything in the original.
Libraries began as repositories of all knowledge, and a great human tragedy
can be found in the destruction of the Library at Alexandria. On the other
hand, without monastic libraries and scriptoria, Western culture and philosophy
would not have survived the Dark Ages, nor flourished in the Renaissance.
Until the American people clamored and created public libraries, however,
they were never free to use. They are still not free to operate. The public,
through taxes, funds most libraries. Therefore, the libraries must reflect
to some degree what that public wants. There is no room for elitism in
American libraries--librarians cannot justify to taxpayers the purchase
of rare books, for instance, when there are no encyclopedias or computers.
Without library patrons, what is the point? Mr. Baker calls for storage
facilities for newspapers instead of microforms. In the best of all possible
worlds, this would be any library's choice, but how can a library reasonably
justify storage and the costs attached when there are no funds for study
tables or money to keep the library open on weekends? And while Mr. Baker
repeatedly says storage would be cheaper, he provides no real numbers
or costs. The reader is left with the impression that Baker only wants
the storage and materials to be there when he himself wants them.
Librarians are taught in graduate school that information is the important
commodity of their profession, and most are intent, indeed often militant,
about making sure that information is protected and provided free of charge
to the general public. The materials in and of themselves are not the
mission but the vessel. Librarians don't care what format information
is in, as long as it is easily accessible. This is not to say that they
don't have an appreciation for fine leather bindings or first editions
of great literary works, but their charge is to protect and disseminate
the intellectual content within the pages of a work. Their further charge
is to be responsible with public monies. They are faced daily with difficult
choices of buying either one thing or the other, but seldom both. The
surge of technology in libraries has further strained this situation,
and history does not run in reverse.
Fundamentally, Nicholson Baker has beaten the dead horse of newspapers
on microform in his book to an extreme. He has made personal attacks,
and he has failed the test of objectivity. His point of view is his own,
and it is valid for him, but he shotguns his argument rather than carefully
aiming his points. The final irony is that, unfortunately, he is right
that no one seems to be preserving newspapers except on microform, and
that many, many runs are already gone for good. Surely someone could have
saved them, but who, where, and with whose dollars?
Elizabeth Malia, MLS
Media Services Manager
Eastern Washington University
Boutaneff, Vera, trans. (2001) Father Arseny 1893-1973:
Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father_. Crestwood, N. Y.: St. Vladimir's
SeminaryPress. 279 pp. ISBN: 0-88141-180-9. $15.95.
Boutaneff, Vera, trans. (c2001) Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses_.
Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. 244 pp. ISBN: 0-88141-232-5.
The story of Father Arseny is the story of the Russian Orthodox faith
as it was practiced, or I should say repressed, in the Soviet Union under
Stalin (secretary of the Communist Party from 1922 to 1953). Father Arseny
(1893-1973) was a Russian Orthodox spiritual father. What takes two words--"spiritual
father"--to say in English, only takes one word--starets--to say
in Russian. Starets means "elder," or "the old one."
A starets is usually a monk who is also a priest. And usually, the chief
duty of a starets, or spiritual father, is to hear confessions, the confessions
of his spiritual sons and spiritual daughters. And if Stalin, who originally
studied to become a priest (see article, "Stalin, Joseph," at
http://biography.com), had never come to power, that would have all been
plain sailing for Father Arseny. But instead Father Arseny got sentenced
to one of the Stalinist labor camps. Unfortunately, his assignment was
to one of the so-called "special camps," where it was assumed
that the relentless hard work would kill one. Fortunately, however, he
lived and was eventually released. He was one of the lucky ones.
According to translator Vera Bouteneff, 120,000 of his fellow monks and
nuns were killed during this period (Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest,
Prisoner, Spiritual Father; Translator's Foreword, p. vi). Stalin! Why
did he kill his own people? I have a desire, at age 39, to become a (Greek)
Orthodox nun myself, and when I opened the first of these two books and
read that statistic about the 120,000 slain monks and nuns, I closed the
book and almost never returned to it again. Fortunately for me, I had
to read (both of) these books, and why? Because they had been given to
me by a priest. This priest, whose name was Father Michael, was so eager
to present me with the books, that he was inscribing them to me, "To
Lambrini, With Every Good Wish and Prayer," as he was driving, on
the steering wheel of his car. "Do you think this Father Arseny will
be canonized?" I asked Father Michael. "I'm sure he will,"
he replied. "Which of the two books should I read first?" I
asked. "Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father,"
he said. And, now that I have read them both (much to my spiritual improvement,
thank you, Father Michael), I would agree. The first book, Father Arseny
1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, is an account of Father
Arseny's days in the "special camp," of how he spent his days
doing menial labor, putting up with cold in the winter and heat in the
summer, doing without adequate medical care, having his food stolen, being
bitten by mosquitoes, being threatened and berated by criminals, etc.
It is an exposé of life in the Stalinist labor camps. If one has
not already read a lot about life behind the Iron Curtain, it will prove
unforgettable. The second book, Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses, is
more of a collection of the remembrances of the spiritual sons and spiritual
daughters of Father Arseny, who might be thought of as "witnesses,"
I suppose, gathered about Father Arseny in a sort of "cloud."
It, on the other hand, is not as vivid of an experience as the first book.
There are some poignant human interest stories in it, yes; but there are
some powerful ones in the first book, too.
My overall recommendation regarding these books is twofold. One, would
anyone who was not an Orthodox Christian want to read these books? I believe
so, yes. And two, if you can buy only one of the two books, buy the first.
This would be Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father,
the one that records daily life as it was for Father Arseny in the special
camp. The Soviet Union (1922-1991) is gone now. It was an experiment,
in Marxism, that has passed. Libraries need to preserve all the documents
of it that we can. Whereas the second book, Father Arseny: A Cloud of
Witnesses, is more of an anthology of religious anecdotes, to use a Russian
word (anekdot). I believe it was published more for completion--to complete
the recording of Father Arseny's life's work--than for the telling of
the important parts of his story. But, as my own spiritual father, Father
Nektarios of Panagia Pammakaristos Greek Orthodox Monastery in Lawsonville,
North Carolina, would say, let both works be blessed. --
Health Sciences Librarian
Western Kentucky University