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Assault on Paper, or Assault on Librarians? Barbara Quint Takes On Nicholson Baker
Posted On May 1, 2001
Most of us have heard by now about the Nicholson Baker book that takes librarians to task for our digitization policies: Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. In it, Baker accuses libraries and librarians of destroying print archives, from newspapers to documents to books. How could anyone miss the extensive coverage in the national media recently, portraying him as a mild-mannered novelist turned crusader to counter the villainous activities of librarians. Yes, it's the same Nicholson Baker who penned the (infamous) article in The New Yorker in 1996 that blasted librarians for replacing card catalogs with OPACs.

Now however, my fellow NewsBreaks editor Barbara Quint has taken up the gloved challenge and has answered Baker quite pointedly in an editorial that will be published in the June issue of Searcher. It is now available on the Information Today, Inc. Web site (

Both of us are very concerned that Baker now seems to be framing the national debate on digital archiving. The issues are too important to be left to amateurs. In fact, we are dismayed to note that he has been asked to speak at a number of library association functions. Perhaps those invitations are to fuel the debate or to change his mind, but we are concerned that he is taking center stage with his views on critical professional issues.

This Friday May 4, Baker will be at the Utah Library Association meeting (titled "Preservation: Framing the Future"), which reportedly will be broadcast on the C-SPAN network. He is doing a program that he will also present at the upcoming annual ALA conference in San Francisco. His topic deals with the politics of the National Preservation Microfilming Program that reportedly led to the last copies of many historic U.S. newspapers being discarded. He is also scheduled to participate in a lunchtime "Reading," and sell and sign copies of his books. On May 17 he is scheduled to appear at the Maryland Library Association meeting and on June 17 at the ALA conference. We hope that librarians will use these opportunities to provide him with some lively debate and set the record straight about their so-called malevolent activities.

If you want to gauge some of the effect of Baker's work on the general public, just look at the customer reviews of his book on One mentions libraries gone awry, another talked of the hypocrisy in the library profession. Most give it the highest rating and only one I saw notes that the book is "one-sided to a fault."

Librarians around the country, particularly those connected to preservation efforts, have begun to respond to the book. See the sidebar to Quint's editorial for links to many relevant resources. Quint says: "If librarians hope to recover their leading role in the national discussion of preservation issues—not to mention their benign reputation—they had better get hopping. A quick review of the general press illustrates how easy it is to usurp the public mind…."

As a librarian I'm undoubtedly prejudiced on this, but I think Nicholson Baker may have met his match—intellectually, verbally, and passionately—in Barbara Quint. He shouldn't have picked on librarians.

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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