Writer Nicholson Baker has authored five novels, including The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, Vox, The Fermata and The Everlasting Story of Nory. He has also published U and I, a personal meditation on his 'relationship' with John Updike, and a collections of essays, The Size of Thoughts. Nicholson Baker lives in Maine, with his wife and children, where he is trying to write the novel he was writing before he got caught up in the issues of his latest book.
Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper is his singular and impassioned description of American libraries' systematic dismantling of our newspaper archives and the destruction of huge numbers of rare books. In the course of writing this compelling expose, Baker has presented an alarming story of the betrayal of the public trust by our greatest research libraries, including the Library of Congress, by their disposal of irreplaceable collections:
"If American libraries had been doing the job we paid them to do, and innocently trusted that they were doing, over the past five decades — ;if they had been taking reasonable care of our communal newspaper collections rather than stacking them in all the wrong places... — ;then the British Library's decision to auction off millions of pages of urban life would not have been such a low point of cultural husbandry, would not have been such a potentially disastrous loss to future historians. Fifty years ago after all there were bound sets, even double sets of all the metropolitan dailies safely stored in libraries around the United States."
In fact, Baker was so horrified by what he discovered that he founded the American Newspaper Repository (www.oldpapers.org).
In so doing, he used his (and his wife's) retirement money to buy and save the only remaining copies of leading newspapers like Joseph Pulitzer's New York World from the British Library. And he has leased warehouse space in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, where he has taken delivery of and archived tens of tons of old newspapers.
Baker concludes Double Fold with this resonating observation: "We're at a bizarre moment in history when you can have the real thing for considerably less than it would cost to buy a set of crummy black and white snapshots of it which you can't read without the help of machine."
Robert Birnbaum: In the preface to Double Fold, you mention that librarians in San Francisco advised you that some book dumping was going on. You then investigated and to telescope this question, you asked Deborah Garrison at The New Yorker if she could stand you doing another piece on libraries, and she said yes. In the midst of writing, you saw that it was longer than a magazine article. Did you then propose this as a book to your publisher, or did you just continue to write it?
Nicholson Baker: I didn't tell them that I had a book that was in process until I was pretty much finished or close to being finished with the book. Because I wanted them to react to a finished work...because it's very hard to describe. What is it? Well, it's a book about some things that went wrong in libraries. And, you know, (sighs) I didn't even know how it would all turn out. And then I got distracted because 4/5ths of the way through I had to scramble to save those papers. So I just tried to finish the book. I guess Random House did, in the end, know that it was coming. They were kind of expecting a novel. (laughs)
RB: The one you are writing now?
NB: Yeah, the one I'm working on now. So, there was a little adjustment period there.
RB: I wondered how it got published. It doesn't show any signs of commercial potential. If you had been someone else, would it have been published?
NB: You know I wonder. Maybe. It's just a lucky position to be in because I have written novels that have been fairly successful that I can follow these paths out. I wrote 100 and some pages about the word 'lumber' in an earlier thing. In this case they were willing to go with me even when I had a hundred pages of end notes. So maybe it wouldn't have worked for someone else.
RB: Here in Boston, you've been on a number of talk shows and The Globe did a Q & A with you. Are people listening, paying attention to you on this?
NB: Well, I think people are quite shocked about some of the stuff in there. And maybe they have the same reaction that I had. Which is (in a louder voice), "Nobody told me...that the Library of Congress wasn't doing the job of a national library" and that they had been quietly getting rid of all this stuff. Part of the response is that some things that nobody knew about that were just basic truths about American libraries, are coming out and people are kind of troubled. I haven't gotten this kind of response, strangely enough, since Vox... Which was an accessible book about phone sex. And here is a book about research libraries. But clearly people care about this stuff. It's not just the people who think, "I need research libraries to be good because I may be looking some things up about Kurdistan or something." It's that people want libraries to save our past because it stands for something in their own lives. Their world is in the present, but they want this feeling that old things are respected, not old flags, not just Plymouth Rock, but all recorded print.
RB: One of the 'heroes' of your book, G. Thomas Tanselle, quotes a 19th-century bibliographer, "The most worthless book of a bygone day is a record worthy of preservation."
NB: Part of the reason a worthless book is worth retaining is that its worthlessness means something. If we get rid of all tabloids, all National Enquirers because we think that stuff in there is garbage, then we don't know the context out of which another kind of reporting comes. But on the other hand, when you say that even the most worthless thing is worth preserving, then what the librarians who disagree with me say, "Psst, this flake Baker says we save every single scrap and he's so unrealistic." And of course we've got to make tough choices. I just don't think that I am saying that we have to keep every scrap. If you keep one copy of Joseph Pulitzer's great paper, you're keeping, not every scrap, you're keeping one millionth of every scrap because he published a million copies a day. And this was the thing in the city that everybody read.
RB: One can make a list of villains: Clapp, Battin, Licklider...is there any way one can assign decent motives to these people? Were they opting for some greater good?
NB: Yes, I think the greater good that Verner Clapp was opting for, was hoping to achieve, was that he was going to change the way libraries did business. He had an ideal that a library would be a certain fixed size. The building would actually be fixed. And the collection inside it would kind of compress itself down and transform itself. And this was exciting to him because he liked technological innovation and also although he was a very learned man, and he was essentially, at heart, a science librarian, and at that point in the fifties there was all this atomic research and we were coming off the triumphs of the bomb and everything. And scientists needed to communicate quickly with each other but secretly. Microfilm was perfect for that because it's not readable unless you have a machine. So, you had the glamour and the excitement of doing something that had a past that was associated with espionage combined with his very heart felt desire to revolutionize the way libraries stored their information. So, of course, by his lights he was a man with good intentions. There are no superficially corrupt people here. Except, in some cases the really shoddy microfilm shops who were just making a buck.
RB: You asked Pat Battin if she had exaggerated, was there really evidence that books turned to dust. She, of course, says no. How can you let someone off the hook for that?
NB: I think clearly Patricia Battin and the Commission on Preservation and Access grotesquely exaggerated the extent of paper deterioration in order to frighten people and raise money. Their motives were that they thought...
RB: ...there's a better way...
NB: There's a better way. If we get all this stuff on microfilm, sure we'll be destroying the books. But the books are old and they are doomed anyway. And we'll be getting all this stuff on microfilm we can then scan digitally later on and then we'll have — "Presto!" — the new digital library. I think she was — what's the phrase the British use? — singularly economical with the truth.
RB: Clapp commissioned a book called Libraries of the Future and as you point out, not one librarian, humanist, or historian is involved.
NB: Yeah. What you had was a book that was edited by a now legendary figure, J.C.R. Licklider, who had worked for these air defense programs and come up with all this real-time computing and is sort of seen now as the father of electronic bulletin boards or the father of the virtual life (is a better way to say it). He was really a Cold War guy. What was fun to do and what was interesting about doing the book was to use the book to prove the unpredictability of any kind of research. Why do we need research libraries? Because I, in trying to make some points about where libraries might have gone astray, was ending up with 1940's volumes of the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Where Licklider had chronicled his experiments in killing rats by depriving them of sleep on moving tread mills. So, who can say that some item in a collection has outlasted its usefulness, because you just never know the caroming progress of research.
RB: It's what you refer to as cultural tillage. Some thing may lay dormant for a long period of time and then...If you destroy information you will never know.
NB: Yes, and in fact the obscurity of the thing is part of its beauty. The fact that it has lain untouched for all this time is part of what appeals to researchers about it. There's the place where you might find the discovery. Flipping through a volume of The New York World, I come to a early article about Norbert Wiener who was a cyberneticist. Here he is, a picture of him at age nine because he was a math prodigy. There's just something delightful about finding that in the context of all this muckraking.
RB: Doesn't basic research entail not knowing what you are going to find out?
NB: Yes, and one bit of knowledge inevitably propels you towards the next. And the other thing is when you are doing research you don't use one medium. You use any medium that will give you interesting things. If you happen to have available an encyclopedia, you'll look it up there. If you have Google you'll see what that gives you. Google will push you toward a point in the library stacks. You'll open that book, in the references you'll see another book. In the index to that other book you'll be pushed to finding more about a certain obscure figure on the Internet and then you'll look up something in microfilm that you can't get. So, there is all this triangulation, there's this multi-directionality that converges on a piece of research.
RB: Would the main "villains" of this book agree with that concept of research?
NB: You see, I don't think they do. What Patricia Battin's folks were doing is they were having all these meetings in which art historians would sit down and decide what are the crucial books in art history. And all the rest are allowed to disintegrate. But these are the one's we will guillotine and microfilm for the greater good. And then she would also have another group who were scientists who would be doing the same thing. But in fact the art history section of the library is going to be something that will glow with luminous interest to some scientist at some point because he is interested in polymer coatings on paintings. You never know. Therefore it's a completely misguided way of looking at how to treat collections.
RB: In the book you point out that in the pursuit of this the very perverse notion of taking the best copies of books, not the worst, because those were the books that could be most easily reproduced. That's pretzel logic of the most devious kind.
NB: Well, it is. Because what happened in the course of this Brittle Books, delusion, really — self-created delusion — ;was that it became...once they had presented this notion that everything was crumbling there then were these subsidiary ideas that you save money by doing it a certain way. If all books are doomed — and it's really true that all books are doomed — then there might be some reason for taking the best copy of a book and cutting it up and taking its pictures least expensively because you want to save...it's Malthusian...
RB: Do you think all books are doomed?
NB: But I don't. I know that all books aren't doomed. All the deterioration that they based these programs on have turned out to be completely false.
RB: Bad science...
NB: Not only bad science but the main figure [William James] Barrow never even had any scientific degrees. He just wore a white lab coat. He was just a man who had been working as foreman in a clothes factory and then when the factory went bust he decided to set up shop as a documents restorer. And he never had a scientific training, so his predictions that 97% of the books would be unusable by the 21st century and all those things endlessly quoted by librarians had no empirical basis (emphatically states) whatsoever.
RB: It's not a conspiracy. Is it a confederacy of dunces?
NB: It's certainly not a conspiracy. There is a sort engine of counter reaction that's happening with the book of "Baker is this conspiracy theorist." But the word conspiracy never exists, I don't use it in the book. And it wasn't a conspiracy it was simply people who wanted libraries to change a certain way. And they were like-minded. And there was certain tinge of duncedom in some of them.
RB: The double fold test [the practice of folding a corner of a book page back and forth], is that good science?
NB: Well, if you open a book and you fold the corner back and forth a couple times and it's an old book, the corner is going to break. Because that's how you break a piece of paper when you don't have scissors. So the fold test is one of those things, it seems to me is a wonderful way of getting the results you want. If you want to prove that a lot of books are doomed and you define doomed as failing three double folds or something than this is just a perfect way to do it. Of course it's not. What you want from a book page is you want to be able to open the book and you want to be able to turn the page. And you want to be able to turn the page a bunch of times because you want possibly to read the book a number of times.
RB: Or have numerous readers as well as readings...
NB: Which is why I came up with my alternative test for paper. The turn test. (both laugh).
RB: First, the San Francisco Public Library is dumping material and then the British Library was dumping out of long runs of American newspapers. Were you surprised by British were going to dump out of historic material?
NB: I was really surprised. I emailed the British Library because I wanted some sort of quote from them that would shame American libraries into saying, "We gotta do better." I thought that the British Library would say we wouldn't dream of getting of our newspaper collections even though we have microfilm. And to their credit they do keep all current British newspapers. The Times, and The Guardian and The Telegraph. They bind those. Because this the stuff people read and that's what the British Library is supposed to do. But they had, however, decided to bracket everything else. The world's finest foreign newspaper collection with stuff from every conceivable place, all in beautiful shape...and they allowed this guy from Belgium to drive down in a truck and he took some of the finest French illustrated papers and German papers of the Occupation and everything and drive off with them. Well, at least they are in a library. That's my feeling. He's a wonderful man, the man from Belgium.
RB: He's not dealing, cutting bound volumes and selling individual copies?
NB: No. The reason that the British Library was so resistant to keep the American papers or to give them to me once I said, "You really shouldn't be dumping these," is because by then they had gotten actual faxed bids. Some of the bids were high. And so they wanted the money.
RB: They wanted the money, what was the total amount that they received, for what they wanted to get rid of?
NB: In the grand scheme of things, a pittance. But because the British Library just opened a very expensive new building and because they are starved for money and they can now say we opened a new building and we are out of space and we need more money...it's politically impossible. They are trying anything to survive. It's an act of desperation really. Which they will then justify by saying, "Newsprint deteriorates" or something like that.
RB: They are still saying it?
NB: Yes, actually the new line is...they've stopped saying newspaper deteriorates because they have seen the pictures and it's hard to argue with that. Now they are saying that it would be implicitly paternalistic or imperialistic for them to hold on to the foreign newspapers. Because... because something. And this is a library that has books in every possible language. Somehow, they are going to try any argument in the store.
RB: You conclude the book with, "We're at a bizarre moment in history when you can have the real thing for considerably less than it would cost to buy a set of crummy black and white snapshots of it which you can't read without the help of machine." Has this crisis come about because of space? It's not about money.
NB: Yeah, but space is such a complicated idea. Because, yes it's about space and the cost for space but if you ...space is actually an emotion. It somehow hurts to allocate a whole floor to a newspaper collection. It's not just that it would be expensive. It's seems to actually be distasteful to some library administrators. That so much of their square footage would be devoted to these whales of history. And they do. I have now, with the help of these volunteers, sorted The Herald Tribune. It is like a long hill. The piles, in the early years of the 20th Century the piles are kind of low because you can get two months in a volume. But as the century progresses and through WW II one year takes up 36 volumes, one year takes up 48 volumes, later on. You actually go through a kind of stock split where the piles have to split in two and you start rising again. You can see the tonnage of this urban diary.
RB: It is its own graph.
NB: It is. I have a very different feeling about the meaning of history because I have had to lift all these things. It's been an education in the sense that 1933 means so many back bending, sorting physical actions. It's not to sniff at. Because as Walter Benjamin or Disraeli or somebody said, "The way to learn what you've got in your library is by moving" — packing it up and unpacking. Even if you don't open the volumes, these things have beautiful marble boards. They have things to tell you, just by their weight and the way they are organized. If all these things existed as perfect digital facsimiles, which would be lovely and I hope that will happen at some point, you would miss the physical evidence...
RB: Sure, there is something more...
NB: ...how much air they displace.
RB: Apparently, Yale University saw the error of their ways and started to save things. But they didn't catalogue and essentially threw them in a warehouse. Doesn't that raise a question of access, they are saving but who knows what they've got? Isn't that a librarian's nightmare?
NB: I'm trying to think of the Yale example. I don't know what you mean by this? What Yale did — ;if this is the thing you are referring to? They were on the leading edge of the Brittle Book Program and they guillotined and photographed many, many volumes in their history collection. Paul Conway, who is head of conservation, told me, "We were seduced by all this federal money and half the stuff that was there isn't on the shelf anymore." Meaning it's gone, like thrown out, not in storage. Oh! I know what you mean! The Selective Book Retirement Program. Yeah. Even before, that when Verner Clapp walked the land in the '50s he hired a bunch of Yale people to do a book retirement (I love these euphemisms) study. And so they would hire the faculty to go through and weed — decide what should go out to storage, what should be discarded, what should be microfilmed. They found that the faculty didn't want to stick with the program so they had to overcome their disinclination to continue with the weeding process by actually paying the faculty to do this. First thing, you tell somebody, is go make sense out of this collection. Weed out all the junk. And you can actually think, "I can do that. I know what a library should be like." But as soon as you start looking at a couple of volumes you realize, "How in the world am I going to predict. God! I'm actually interested in this myself but maybe nobody else is." All these doubts assail you and eventually you realize this is hopeless. Always err on the side of keeping if you are a great library like Yale, a great university like Harvard. All those places... But they weren't thinking that way. They were thinking, "Our library is like an air craft carrier. So much incoming food and so many men and so many aircraft and it's all gonna like an efficient machine." There was a whole science of operations research that became linked to librarianship that grew up out of the Second World War but then was applied to complicated things like supermarkets, highway systems and libraries, unfortunately.
RB: The wrong model...or the wrong application
NB: Yeah it is because you can't...just because a book is infrequently used shouldn't be a black mark against the book. One use is not always equivalent to another. If Karl Marx reads a tiny economic fact and then blows it up into a rhetorical moment in his thing, that's a much bigger of that document than if some statistician copies the number out. But each time, if it were a library of circulation, it would be one circulation.
RB: You state that a true archive must be able to stand years of relative inattention.
NB: If you can shut the door on a bunch of things, word-filled objects and then you use a crow bar and pry the door open fifty years later and you can still read those word objects, then you know you have a long-lived medium. It happens to be truest of hand-written paper and printed books and things. If we had done that 30 years ago with a bunch of reel to reel computer tapes it wouldn't be true now. I use to use the Wang word processing system. That's how I supported myself, as a word processor with those big 8 1/2 inch discs. I have a box of Wang disks.
RB: One of those millennial issues of the New York Times Magazine dealt with archival issues. The expert consensus was paper is the most dependable storage. You do mention that nobody has ever underestimated the cost of any computer project and then quote William Welsh, a deputy librarian of Congress, "Our biggest misjudgment was underestimating the cost of automation."
NB: I was trying to say...I came up with these huge numbers that it would cost to digitize and then said these are very loose and wrong but in every case it costs more than people project. The Library of Congress found this out over and over again. It does seem to be true. Even with my own life, I once tried to add up...I came up with $13,000 if you add up software, sign-ups and all. And that was years ago. It's a very expensive but a very lovely, in some cases, way of communicating.
RB: You don't address the fact that today everything being published has existing digital files. The library of the future is available to us now if we understand how to preserve it form this moment on.
NB: It's been true for cold type and newspaper typesetting since the '80s. The one good thing, is Nexus, the newspaper database, does simply use the raw typesetting feeds from these different newspapers and put them all in a big pot. And then sells the use of that database...We've always had this but for some reason it's never happened that publishers have wanted to pool all of their — well, it's understandable it has to do with copyright law — typesetting things. Once the book is typeset and finished they don't save the electronic files...
RB: Are you sure?
NB: Now they do because they are selling e-books.
RB: And talking about books on demand, which are single copies printed specifically for a customer...
NB: Now they probably have PDF files on all that stuff. It's different than when I first started. We could be doing a lot better saving digital things than we are. Everybody wants to distract, in a sense, from my points about keeping what's on the shelf by saying, "Listen, you may be worried about keeping what's on the shelf but we have real problems with keeping the stuff that's in the ether...these fireflies. And I agree that there's a problem. I was thinking the other day, Google caches everything. So that cache is a snapshot of two weeks ago or a month ago of what was on the Web. Not everything but a lot...well, can't we output that cache to storage media each time and have a kind of set of snapshots of not all the Web but a heck of a lot of it.
RB: We could give Nevada a whole other reason for existing. Store it all there.
NB: You could, definitely. And it wouldn't take up that much space either.
RB: Would it be an irony produced by this book, which deals with old media, that you get a lot of people to think about what they are going to do with current and future media.
NB: It would be an interesting irony because it poles at me most when I see some incredible, beautiful periodical run cut up in order to make a lousy scan not even a state-of-the-art, 400 dots per inch or 600 dpi scan. It really bothers me. But it is strange that because people now have printers at home that print photo quality...and everybody understands the complexities of making a beautiful color image. In a way that's created a group of viewers or thinkers about literature who actually look at things. They are thinking, "My Hewlitt-Packard has a star burst pattern of squirting the ink out and the Epson has a micro droplet thing and look at the difference between these two images and compare it to — the original." They are looking at the original for the first time rather than just thinking of it as a pot of words. It may be that all this digital imaging the thing that saves some of the art in the old newspapers. Also, people may start thinking of the Web as what it clearly is, a really exciting place for design. So that something like Alexa, which just saves the words, is totally inadequate.
RB: You are speaking at the Boston Public Library, one of the few that saved its bound editions.
NB: Yeah, it gives me something to be happy about when I appear there.
RB: What's the reason the BPL saved its papers?
NB: It's really because of a human being, a man named Longley who was not influenced by the fact that everybody was doing it a different way. He's a very quiet guy, he doesn't gesticulate. He lives in Maine now, he's retired. He just felt whatever microfilm you have, that's all just fine — and he was not a hater of microfilm — but the originals were part of the history of the city. He was unflappable. So it's a single man's decision that happened to be supported by some administrators then it was...they were part of the U.S. Newspaper Program which has been very, very destructive in other libraries. The problem with that program is that there have not been any requirements about what you do with the originals. So it's up to the library in each state. So most libraries with 20th century papers have dumped them afterward.
RB: Have you heard from any of the people that you mention: Verner Clapp, Pat Battinn, Licklider?
NB: James Billington is the only one I have heard from in that a reporter asked him for a quote. And he said he gets tired of conspiracy theorists that never managed anything in their lives (laughs). Which is absolutely true, I have certainly not managed anything. There are some librarians in the Library of Congress who would question whether Billington had ever managed anything in his life. He's not a popular figure.
RB: Is Tanselle still alive?
NB: I've gotten to be friends with him because I was so impressed by what he did and I called him up all excited and...(sighs) you see I didn't know...I lived through all this...this is what really was so...troubling...I was writing about the appeal of card catalogues and why we want to keep them at the same time that the Brittle Books Program was destroying thousands and thousands of books. I certainly believe, still, that a card catalogue is an important historical document that should be kept with the library that made it. It's like a manuscript. But the order of destruction that I was writing about for The New Yorker about the card catalogues and what was happening with these book collection was very different. I would never stop everything in my life and cash out of retirement in order to save a room full of card catalogues even though I think they are beautiful. But if you are talking about the last runs of major American newspapers, I would. I think you make a choice about the levels of importance of something. So, what I mean is that I lived through it. I didn't know any of it was going on. I didn't know that Thomas Tanselle was writing these pieces like The Latest Form Of Book Burning and that it was going on right at the time. That's the weird thing about libraries when you compare to say, urban renewal. In urban renewal you wake up one morning and there's a hole in the skyline where the building was before. And everybody then adjusts to that and they realize that they miss that building and that it was a mistake. And then the city learns from that mistake and realizes they don't want to do it anymore. In the case of library collections there are holes in the collection but they are invisible holes because the stacks are still just floors of books and can't tell 2500 books left this part and a whole run of the New York Sun left that part. So, we can't learn from the mistake as it's going on. That's why people are goggle-eyed now. When you lay out the kinds of things that happened, they all add up now...
RB: Early in Double Fold you made a very good point when you wrote, "The degree of fragility runs from title to title and run to run...many fragile things are deemed worth preserving despite or even because of their fragility."
NB: And you say science proves that these are fragile and science proves they will be even more fragile and therefore we've got to get rid of them. It doesn't make any sense. It's part of some sort of raw and the cooked or some sort...these are pets and these are livestock. It's some sort of classification. Newspapers, unfortunately, were beyond the line of what was considered an artifact.
RB: You cashed in your retirement funds and then received some help from the MacArthur and Knight Foundations. Are you in the clear, have you recouped your own money?
NB: We are out at this point $26,000. Which is not as bad as it looked like it would be because I was able to get those grants. If it didn't hurt some...I think it would be unfair in a way. If I had done this and the money just flowed in...
RB: How about the hurt of knowing what's been lost?
NB: Well, that's the thing. That's the part that bothers me. I bid on a lot of these papers and I got a lot of them. There were 30 titles that went to a dealer — that were good and lovely papers including the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Those were lost. So it's not as if it all had a happy ending. Things are still being unnecessarily destroyed.
RB: Are you making the papers accessible?
NB: Yes, people still use it. What you do is send an e-mail to the American Newspaper Repository or just make an appointment. Anybody can use it. Somebody has to explain that you have to turn the pages carefully. That's all you have to do. This paper is in beautiful condition. It's very fragile in some cases but not so fragile that... for instance, a day before yesterday, there were five students from UNH doing a project. Each picked a year and picked either the Chicago Tribune or the New York Herald Tribune. I just watched them use the paper. It was really good for them because you sink down into week or two weeks of life and you just read through it. And nothing was happening to the pages and everything was happening to their heads. It was a good feeling to think that these things were being used the way they were supposed to be used.
RB: Do you plan to add papers as you can?
NB: Well, as I can. My intention is to keep what is there safe. We're still not solidly funded and it was a setback when the MacArthur Foundation didn't want to keep helping us out.
RB: Are you doing a lot of grant proposal writing?
NB: Not as much as I should. The problem is there is a certain group of foundations that are used to giving to libraries. Since the libraries are in some cases really angry at me, word gets back to the foundation you really ought not to help out this guy because he is an enemy of libraries, a library basher. I don't think I am being too paranoid, I think that has happened. And therefore the foundations, in some cases, are cautious.
RB: How much have you promoted this book? What's the response been? Has there been a groundswell?
NB: My tour went to San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and now here and Washington and New York. I guess I don't know what a groundswell feels like when you are on the ground. I have moved by some of the people who stand in line and say. "I'm a librarian and I appreciate what you are doing because I have been trying to save this in our library for ten years." And then they tell me some horror story. The number of sad things that have happened secretly that never make because it's not newsworthy that the Slavic collection at the University of So and So is...but it's of great moment to person that spent ten years of their life cataloguing that collection. I feel more that I am saying something that a lot of librarians agree with, and maybe the good thing about this will be that, people who otherwise would have said nothing from within, because they were frightened about rocking the boat will be able to stand up for what they think.
RB: Is it too soon to tell?
NB: I think so. The negative reaction has come in from some of the big libraries from people who clearly have not read the book. What they've read are these frightening headlines like "Vandals in the Stacks." If you're the head of some library at some major university and you read a review that's starts with "Vandals in the Stacks"...
RB: Maybe they'll read it...
NB: They don't. So far that hasn't happened all that much. I know from earlier controversies that when somebody is angry with you it's very difficult for them to read what you have written. Even if their eyes go down the lines. The picture they get of what you've written fits with their own anger. It's to soon to tell what effect this book will have...
RB: You bring to mind one of my favorite quotes. When Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-Lai was asked what he thought of the French Revolution he remarked, "It's too soon to tell."
NB: I love that, I hadn't heard that.
RB: How big a place has this taken in your life?
NB: Pretty big. Pretty much of a life-exploding project. I guess 'project' sounds like it's all neat and tidy and everything. writing a book is a self-contained act. You have a certain number of things that you read. And you interview a certain number of people. You think about it all and you type it out and it's a book. But when half way through you stop doing the book writing and do something you've never done before. And it costs a lot of money (deep sigh) and you don't know what you are doing. It's a lot harder. So what I've done is I've gotten up earlier in the morning. Is what I've done. Getting up earlier in the morning and I've said to myself — I've got this motto that means nothing to anyone else but me — but this motto has been very helpful to me. When things are really bad, I just say, "Try to enjoy it." Going to England and pleading with them to keep the collection which seemed to me was going to be such an easy thing to do. I'd fly there and show them examples of the original papers, photographs and examples of the microfilm and make an impassioned case for why they should keep it. And I thought they would just immediately turn and that my offer to take the papers would shock them into keeping the papers. Instead they wanted the bids to go through and I had to say, "Try to enjoy it" a lot. It's actually working. Now that they are safe and sorted and the book is done and I know that all the endnotes are in there. The names are in the index. It's all done. I am enjoying it. Because now, on a whim, January 1902, I just pull it off the shelf and open it up and open up the page and it's like peeling open a Polaroid. It's always some unexpected and often beautiful thing there, waiting.
RB: Do you think that what is at the center of, the heart of the model of this doing away with this huge and magnificent trove of history, is this current wave of people wanting to simplify and de-clutter their lives? And then taking what is a serviceable idea for the personal/private and extending it into the public/cultural arena?
NB: Right. You know those books you buy about how to organize your life that say if you haven't used it in a year you are never going to use it, so toss it. That may actually not be a bad way to live one's own life. I don't do it that way but a lot of people do. But it only works if there are fail safe institutions whose primary task is to keep the things. You look through your old New York Times and you say I haven't looked at these in a year, toss 'em. That means that the Library of Congress is keeping the New York Times. When they are not keeping them, then all of a sudden all of us who have a pile of New York Times look at it as if it's an endangered species. Which it is. And it shouldn't be that way. We should be able to follow whatever method. If we want to hoard... Fine. If we want to get rid of everything... Fine. And that should not be affecting the future course of civilization. It should have no bearing. We've got complicated systems of trust here. Legal systems, data communications systems... We have to have a storage and retrieval system that is adequate to this kind of culture. And it's got to be a big one. The Library of Congress has simply failed us.
RB: How focused can you be on the novel you are supposed to be writing, you were writing, when you started this book?
NB: Well, it's a very different state of mind. Not just to even write non-fiction but to think non-fictionally. I love doing this kind of publicity for a book. It's wonderful because I have to talk about myself but the percentage of me in this is relatively small compared to the percentage of subject. Whereas, if I write a novel and go out on tour there is nothing to talk about except me. So I end up going crazy having talked about myself. People who have talked about themselves for a solid week are deeply damaged — temporarily so, one hopes, individuals. This one has been a pleasure.
RB: Isn't what people talk about all time, themselves?
NB: Yeah sure, they are always talking about themselves in some indirect way. And for me, unfortunately or fortunately, the novels are very autobiographical. Even when there's a science fiction theme or something like that, most of the thoughts that are in the book are thoughts that were in my head and they're private. And so there I am systematically violating my own privacy, day in and day out in these tours. Whereas this, I am just talking about the subject. I've never had this experience before. It's quite good. I like this.
RB: You may not be talking about yourself, but it feels like you have said a lot about yourself with this book and the attendant endeavors. The way you organized the information and what you were impassioned by, I feel like I know a lot about you.
NB: There is a way in which if you choose to write a book on this subject you are saying something about how you want the world to be. I wanted to be honest in one sense too. I could have written this book as a more flat piece of journalism where you have two opposing views where you have stacked the deck but you do it quietly so people reach the conclusion. But there are no guide words saying, "This is outrageous." I decided to do it the old-fashioned muck racking way. Which is when something is ridiculous or horrible, you say, "This is horrible!" I wanted it to be honest in that sense. Not pretending that I respected and agreed with Patricia Battin just as much as I agreed with Peter Waters. Well I think Patricia Battin not only did terrible things to American libraries but that she didn't tell the truth. And so I more or less say that.
RB: What do you think is the likelihood of the adoption your four recommendations?
NB: I think the first one which is that libraries should post the things that they want to get rid of on their web site. I picked that because it seemed to be the least expensive way. I didn't want to create a whole class of costs that they could make a fuss about. That is not only possible but should be happening immediately. The other one that I am optimistic about is that the US Newspaper Program should be abolished or all of the work that happens as a result should be non-destructive. The originals should be saved afterwards. These things don't seem to me to be too difficult.