A Letter from America XXIX: The Next Chapter of the American Newspaper Repository (November)

From the Rare Book Review

This summer I had the pleasure of going to the sea shore for a few days, and my hosts announced that we were going to grill bluefish for dinner. I volunteered to go the local seafood store to pick it up. These days in the States you usually get your fish in a plastic bag, so I was happily surprised, traditionalist that I am, when no petroleum products were wasted and it was delivered wrapped in newspaper. Thus always to newsprint, I thought, taking my soggy package home. If you don’t reuse it, it just becomes somebody else’s conservation problem.

Remember Nicholson Baker? The American journalist and novelist (Vox, the first non-pornographic phone-sex novel) first made a splash in the antiquarian book world with his New Yorker piece on the sad fate of the San Francisco Public Library. He then went on to write Double Fold, an ill-tempered, polemical, but often accurate indictment of how a number of major libraries had trashed their own collections through ill-conceived programs of date conversion, generally by microfilming and then disposing of the originals. Baker’s point about what happened, in the big picture, is certainly correct. His tendency to single out particular individuals in libraries as villains-in-chief was not nearly so fair in a world where such decisions were generally taken by committee, and virtually all parties, right or wrong, were working in good faith. This aspect of Double Fold, far more than its real message, roused the ire of the library world, which fired back ill-tempered polemics in reply.

Baker’s greatest anger was reserved for the disposal of late 19th- and 20th-century newspapers by some major libraries after they had been microfilmed (often badly or incompletely), leaving no available originals for the researcher. As he very rightly observes, the papers of this era are unique cultural artifacts from the beginning of the era of mass communication. They cannot be adequately translated into an alternative medium without losing part of their intrinsic message, and our cultural heritage is poorer for the destruction of the originals.

Well, my heart was all with Baker in these arguments. I, too, have fought this fight (I’m on the black list of a major American library for blowing the whistle on their hatcheting of their own collection, but that’s another story). Yeah, UP AGAINST THE WALL, LIBRARY EVIL-DOERS! Let’s kick ass and take names, and have a few unconstitutional state trials, too. No printed artifact left behind.

My head told me otherwise. It is easy to deplore from the sidelines, but the librarians who are drowning in seas of decaying newsprint and have no space left are in desperate straits, too. I sit on the board of a library that has an exemplary record in such matters, but had to find a home for vast, bulky, newspaper runs out of scope to their mission. It was like trying to find a foster home for an adolescent arsonist. So I was interested in what would happen to Baker when he tried to take the weight of the world on his own shoulders and founded the American Newspaper Repository, intending to stow institutionally unwanted newspaper runs in a Maine warehouse. I also have some experience in filling warehouses with printed matter, and I figured it wouldn’t be long before he needed another warehouse. And then another. It was admirable in a quixotic sort of way, but that class of thing couldn’t last.

Happily, a major institution with the resources to manage Baker’s idea has stepped up to the plate. This spring Baker announced that the fifty tons of newspapers he had accumulated in Maine had been shipped to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in five tractor-trailer loads. Duke has agreed to keep the collection intact (no disbinding or "experimental deacidification" (doesn’t that sound ghoulish?) allowed. Duke is taking in the collection as part of a larger commitment to gather this kind of endangered material, and provide at least one home of last resort for such stuff, including advertising material and comic books. If everybody stays happy with the deal, title to the Repository will officially pass to Duke at the end of the year.

So hats off to Baker for putting his money where his mouth was (although I suspect he heaved a sigh of relief when the last tractor-trailer pulled out). And congratulations to Duke for their vision to take on the mountain of paper that awaits them. Maybe I should send them the paper the fish was wrapped in….

– William S. Reese