Some of our volumes are missing

Public libraries: the guardians of our textual heritage? Think again. Matthew Sweet uncovers the tale of a US author, endangered newspapers and the British Library
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A hundred years ago, the British Museum was planning to unload large parts of its newspaper collection on the rag-and-bottle man. The shelves, it protested, were full. And had the subsequent public outcry not forced a re-think, vast numbers of unique titles might have been gutted to wrap butter and streaky bacon.

In 1902, however, work began to establish a newspaper repository at Colindale, north London, where the collection has been housed ever since. At first, materials were conveyed to the Reading Rooms by cart; today, researchers brave the slow-moving reaches of the Northern Line and consult newspapers on-site. The tedious journey is the quiet revenge of those librarians who wanted to consign those provincial newspapers to the dustbin of history.

This week, the American author Nicholson Baker has reignited the old row. His new book, Double Fold, is in part an account of his efforts to prevent the British Library selling a unique run of illustrated newspapers to a company who fillet them for birthday gifts. There's a whiff of paranoia in the tale: according to Baker, the world's research libraries have been infiltrated by anti-artefactualists who are content to see their starry exhibits disassembled, microfilmed and dumped in landfill sites.

As the Times Literary Supplement denounces "the vandals of Colindale" and the British Library's PR officers resign themselves to yet more calls about the contents of their employer's wheelie bins, the library system as a whole is enjoying a period of cautious optimism. Although it has yet to produce any verifiable end to local branch closures, new government money will soon re-open several institutions long boarded up. For the past two years, the architectural press has been filled with praise for new public-library projects that have captured the imagination of their readers. The chunky pink block of the Peckham Library, the glass palace of the Norwich Forum, the bold poster-paint spaces of the Stratford Library have all received loud acclaim. New library buildings in Birmingham, Bournemouth, Brighton and Swindon are planned. A report to be published next week will demonstrate the enormous importance of library services to readers without a university education. Britain's libraries, after years of underfunding and neglect, are edging higher up the cultural agenda. The word renaissance is being whispered, ever so quietly, among the stacks and shelves.

Just ask Richard Proctor, a Sheffield University lecturer who, after seeing the city's library services cut by half, is now conducting research into the social benefits of the local library. "I think a kind of regeneration is taking place, but there's an enormous amount of lost ground which can't be retrieved. It used to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you had a community library starved of resources, with nothing new to read in it, the number of issues started to go down, and it became a failing library." He describes a case from Sheffield in which a branch had its opening hours cut from 40 hours a week to 18, whereupon the number of books being borrowed slumped dramatically. Those figures were used to justify further cuts, and eventually, closure. "And you can't honestly say that it was because the local community neglected the library and weren't using it, it was because they were prevented from using it by reductions in opening hours and the lack of material resources."

Proctor envisions a future in which the resources of the most massive collections would be available online in any village library. But should the wide dissemination of the intellectual content of a text outweigh considerations about the conservation of its physical medium?

This is the question upon which Double Fold turns. Baker's book suggests that, since the 1950s, a group of zealots have persuaded the library community that mass-reformatting of their holdings – the large-scale microfilming and digitisation of books, periodicals and newspapers – is vital, because the contents of their stacks are "turning to dust". The acid content of most paper manufactured after 1850, they argue, means that it is quickly "self-destructing". The British Library produced its own report on this process, The Enemy Within! [sic]. Nobody, however, seems to have seen a book in this precise condition.

Baker contends that US librarians have been overestimating the number of embrittled books in their collections in order to clear space on their overstocked shelves. They've achieved this, he argues, with the Double Fold test, a piece of legerdemain which anyone can try at home. Take the top right-hand corner of a page, and fold it in the way you're expressly forbidden by librarians all over the globe. Then pinch it, and fold it back the other way. See how many times you can do this until you have detached a little triangle of paper from its body. Despite this form of manipulation being one that the book was not designed to endure – Baker suggests that assessing the durability of diving boards in this way would be as logical – the test has been used to justify the dismemberment, microfilming and disposal of an enormous volume of American library holdings. Although it seems as preservative as photocopying the Elgin Marbles and chipping them to fill the bottoms of fish tanks, library preservation departments have carried out this work with enthusiasm.

The British Library insists that the Double Fold test has not been used on its premises. It has, however, found other – and no less controversial – ways of freeing up shelf space. When, in 1999, Baker learnt that the British Library was intending to microfilm and sell off a large swath of its foreign newspaper acquisitions, he was determined to use his own money to save as much of the collection as he could. The library invited him to bid alongside firms who planned to fillet these volumes to sell as birthday presents. Fortunately, many of his bids were successful. Now, if you want to gaze upon the gorgeous colour illustrations of the New York World, you'll have to give Baker a ring. The copies he rescued from auction turned out to be the only ones in existence: most of those in US libraries had been microfilmed and junked years ago.

The British Library insists that beyond these foreign newspaper holdings, it has not physically disposed of any part of its collection. But the language of its official pronouncements suggests that it is now more interested in retaining the content of its holdings than the paper on which it is printed. "We never de-accessioned anything where we didn't retain the content," insists British Library spokeswoman Valerie McBurney. "We were concerned to retain the content of those newspapers. Holding on to the content was key." Later in our conversation she says: "With printed materials, people do want them preserved as an artefact as well. But we have all sorts of issues on storage. We have very pressing considerations to keep all this material but our storage is running out."

Unfortunately, the new formats that promise compact ways of housing this content may transpire to be more fragile than the paper they were designed to replace. Nobody knows what happens to microfilm after 150 years on the shelf, and an investigation into the quality of the British Library's microfilm holdings – instituted after agitations by Baker – has so far failed to report its conclusions. And by the library's tacit admission, using digital media to preserve copies of texts has its own inherent problems. Last month, a new initiative to "safeguard the UK's threatened digital cultural and information heritage" was launched, aimed at preserving websites, databases and electronic records. A laudable project, but one that casts doubt on the wisdom of relying on such technology to hold copies of printed text.

According to the library's latest press release, the BBC's Domesday project of the mid-1980s – for which masses of social, environmental, economic and cultural information was collated and burnt on to 12in video discs – "typifies the challenges of digital preservation and access – with only a few working examples of the software needed to interpret the data on the discs still extant, the information on this incredible historical document will soon disappear forever." The pages of the original Domesday Book, by contrast, still turn.

Whether you care about this depends if you regard the book as a repository for textual information, decantable into any receptacle that takes your fancy, or an artefact that contains a substantial amount of information that is beyond microfilm or digital photography to detect or convey. It's the most important philosophical issue with which libraries will have to deal this century. Would today's researchers have thanked the British Library's board if, in 1902, it had decided not to build Colindale, but to record the contents of those provincial newspapers on the cutting-edge medium of the wax phonograph cylinder? One day, probably quite soon, the digital technology used in flagship projects such as Peckham, Stratford and Norwich will seem just as quaint and user-hostile. If, however, Nicholson Baker is correct about the fraudulence of the Double Fold test, the books will still be sitting there, ready to be rediscovered.

'Double Fold' by Nicholson Baker is published by Vintage, £7.99