For bibliophiles, this is something of a horror story. Double Fold is a journalistic tour de force of the wholesale destruction wreaked upon countless unique books and periodicals within American libraries during the 1980s and early 1990s. This wasn’t the work of some crypto-fascist bookburning organisation, but the work of the libraries themselves. Caught up in a self-perpetuating hype that their older books were "crumbling" and "turning to dust" due to the high acid content of their paper, a huge preservation program moved to capture these supposedly self-destructing books on microfilm. Microfilming in the early Eighties was an extremely expensive process, with the end result often illegible at high resolution and the original book ruined in order to make the photographing process quicker and cheaper. American libraries were quite literally destroying books to preserve them.
This book is a beautiful example of polemical journalism – i.e. an account that makes no pretence at objectivity but clearly delineates the difference between the author’s opinions and those he interviews. Nicholson unfolds his own growing amazement, disbelief and bewilderment at the sheer scale and lack of accountability in the size of the preservation programs. Just when you think Baker has uncovered the most appalling librarian folly in a card catalogue of disasters, he unveils another conservation cock-up that leaves the reader openmouthed. The clarity with which Baker tells the story makes each chapter something of a cliffhanger. Not an insignificant achievement when the subject of the book is books no-one ever reads or even particularly cares about.
And this is precisely Nicholson’s point. To take the "use-or-lose" attitude to our own libraries is folly of the greatest nature: the whole point of a library is for it to be a depository of information that is oblivious to the vagaries of intellectual fashion. As Nicholson states, "what is of no interest to one generation can become fascinating to the next."
Without libraries performing this catch-all status, and avoiding making judgment calls on the worth of the information they store, whole chunks of our collective histories will begin to disappear. Or indeed, have already begun to disappear.
Double Fold also raises an important question mark over the forms of storage that are chosen within the electronic age, as formats become obsolete ever more rapidly and the ability to retrieve information paradoxically ever more difficult rather than easier. Microfiche is already obsolete and with many of the books destroyed in the process of preserving them, there is no longer an original source which can be transferred to new mediums. The end result is that the only source left is a badly copied and difficult to use microfiche.
Baker’s conclusion is hard to argue with — let’s distribute the content of books in every other medium required, but — hey! — let’s not destroy the books themselves, because they are still the most enduring medium for knowledge that we have. Now that’s a truly novel idea.