Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Do you copy?

A few thoughts arising from Nicholson Baker's Double Fold, about the continuing drive in libraries to destroy original copies of books and periodicals, replacing them with microfilm and other media.

It's as much a bureaucratic farce as anything. Daily newspapers, as Baker reminds us, tend to come out in several editions through the day, to catch up with late-breaking news, sports results and so on: standard library policy, however, is to put just one edition on microfilm. The problem with this becomes obvious when considering the Sept 17, 1970 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. The early edition quoted President Nixon's off-the-cuff remarks about a potential crisis in the Middle East; White House staff complained, and the words were cut from the later edition. Guess which edition was saved to film?

Baker quotes historian Jeffrey Kimball:

"For my new research project, a larger study of 'smoking-gun' documents, Nixon's quoted remarks have a critical bearing, but all I can get hold of now is the microfilm copy of the evening edition of the Sun-Times, which does not quote Nixon's comments; that is, all microfilm copies of this newspaper for this date seem to be of the evening edition."

So, not only does the quotation not exist; but because we can't compare the two editions, all evidence of its removal has also gone, like Trotsky airbrushed from the revolution. The only difference is that this state of affairs seems to be the result of sort-sighted cost-cutting rather than conspiracy.

One of Baker's particular beefs with microfilm is that it doesn't offer a true copy: we lose colour; marginal text is often cut off. Scanned pages saved to disk are often little better, with text recognition software still inferior to the combination of human eye and human brain. The author goes so far as to set up a non-profit organisation to save some back issues of the Chicago Tribune that were destined for disposal:

Sixty-three thousand dollars, or about fifty dollars a volume, may seem like a lot of money to pay for old news, but it's actually a bargain. To buy the equivalent microfilm run from Bell and Howell would cost about $177,000. 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 a machine.

Baudrillard, of course, wouldn't have found such a state of affairs bizarre. Nor would he have particularly raised an eyebrow at the title of a report by digitisation champion Michael Lesk: "Substituting Images for Books".


Private said...

I like your blog!

Billy said...

I'm slightly obsessed with ol' Nicholson. I'm not sure why, he's a bit of a cranky weirdo with an obsession for minutiae, but he writes good books.

Valerie said...

Why do so many news items remind me of Vernor Vinge novels?

(And what line does Vinge have to the future anyway? It's kind of creepy.)

This is all disturbing stuff. It's becoming easier and easier to eradicate and alter history. And harder and harder to archive the amount of paper evidence we generate.

I guess we're doomed and should just embrace the malleability of reality...

FirstNations said...

I always get horribly seasick when I look at the microfiche. micrifichies? whatever they are they make me feel barfy.

Tim F said...

Thank you Rachete. Yours is also fun, especially the pictures. But please be aware that messages saying 'I like your blog!' usually lead one to sites offering questionable financial products, or images of ladies in just their pants.

Minutiae and sex, Billy.

January blues, Valerie?

That's interesting, FN, I feel the same about gin.