Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Libraries, Microfilm, and Preservation/Conservation

Double Fold:  Libraries and the Assault on Paper
By happenstance I discovered Nicholson Baker's Double Fold:  Libraries and the Assault on Paper a few weeks ago.  I wondered in what way libraries could be assaulting paper since libraries are generally filled with paper organized in the form of books.  Baker  informs and I found it immensely interesting.

I generally imagine that libraries, especially state libraries, large city libraries, and archives, keep careful watch over their collections of historic items, controlling the environment, preventing pests, and creating special boxes/containers to keep them safe.  This may not always be the way that materials are kept.

I was interested to learn that by today's definitions there is a difference between conservation and preservation. 
  • Conservation refers to the repair or restoration of the original book, newspaper, or any other item.  It involves the idea of reversibility, that is, being able to undo something that’s been done.  
  • Preservation may include conservation but has generally come to mean using microfilm, photography, scanning, photocopying, etc., to make available the words or images of the original item.  Preservation is often irreversible because the original pages of books and newspapers have been destroyed.  They're gone.

"Books and papers are gone?"  Yes.  When microfilming became popular in the 1930s, previously-bound volumes of newspapers were unbound -- the spine cut off and the pages disassembled -- so they could be microfilmed.  After the images were created the newspapers were discarded.  (This continues today when scanning.)   Many of the old, original newspapers are gone from libraries, including from the Library of Congress, America's storehouse and repository of books and newspapers.  (This is not to say that every library discards its old newspapers, but many -- maybe even most -- do.) 

For those papers that have been discarded, it matters not that technology has improved and better images could be made now than were originally made.  If there is a poor copy of a newspaper and the original newspaper is gone, there will never be a better copy.  (Scans that are made today from those microfilms will not be any better than the microfilms themselves.)  When one considers that many early microfilms are in poor condition, it's easy to realize that they weren't really preserved or conserved.  We are left with microfilm images that may be illegible because they are too light, too dark, out of focus, or scratched from use.  I have more than a few newspaper articles where part of the image is black, or fades to white, or is blurry.  It's every family historian's disappointment to find an illegible obituary or half a photograph in a microfilmed image.

Many newspapers, especially those in large cities, published several editions each day.  The content changed in each edition and the location of articles sometimes changed from edition to edition.  If there was an article about your great-great-grandfather's auto wreck in the morning edition, but something of more importance happened during the day, his name may not have appeared in any of the other editions.  This could explain why a researcher from a generation or two ago has a front page news article that you can't find when you look for it on microfilm.  And if the owners of those papers discarded all but the late edition, you won’t find that article about your g-g-grandfather.

To perform the Double Fold Test of the title, open a book to any page, dog-ear the corner of a page (my words, not his) until it's creased; then turn the dog ear to the opposite side and fold it till it touches the page.  That's one double fold.  Do it until the paper breaks or any number of times you choose.  This is the method used to determine the usability of old books.  Those determined to be unusable are not ones that can't be used but ones in which the dog-ear breaks after one double fold.  Books whose pages break after three double folds are also in danger.  Nicholson believes this is utter craziness:  would you bend a short segment of a slinky until it broke to determine whether it was usable?  Would you check the usefulness of a diving board by bending it back and forth until it broke?  Paper in books was not made to be folded but to be lightly turned.  A book with brittle pages may still be legible.  Nicholson proposes a new test:  the Turn Endurance Test.  Lift a page and turn it just as if you were reading a book; repeat.  It you can turn the page and it doesn't crumble in your hands and if you can read the words on the page it's a usable book.

Please don't misunderstand.  I love having images of newspapers and books online with the ability to use OCR to search for my ancestors.  But I don't think historic, irreplaceable materials should be destroyed.  Yes, there are expenses and space requirements when storing original materials but as I understand it, making microfilm and digital scans is not inexpensive either.  Can we not have both?  Can there not be a way to both preserve and conserve those historic newspapers and old books? 

This is just the briefest highlight of Double Fold.  For anyone who loves old newspapers and books and who believes that the library is taking care of these historic items, this will be an interesting and enlightening book. 


Copyright © 2009-2015 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Nancy, I know that libraries and archives cannot keep absolutely everything, but I too really appreciate looking at the actual historic document!

    1. I know libraries can't keep everything but I personally think at least the Library of Congress should be able to provide space to keep America's newspapers, especially the historic ones. They are a record of America's activities.


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