Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Thank goodness!!! I just finished Nicholson Baker’s book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper and guess what: paper, even the most acidified paper, is much more durable than I was led to imagine. Some of the jewels of a William Burroughs collection have reputations for being extremely volatile and fragile. My Own Mag, Floating Bear and Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts were produced on very cheap paper subject to rapid deterioration and yellowing over the years. In addition, much of this material was subjected to rough treatment by their owners who actively read, used and passed them around. My copy of Floating Bear #9 possesses all manner of creases (Floating Bear was folded to be sent through the mail) and wear, not to mention water damage which occurred during a flood at poet John Thomas’s residence. The premier issue of Fuck You has oxidized on the cover leaving stains on the construction paper. Issue 9 of My Own Mag was vandalized intentionally by publisher Jeff Nuttall. A green stain runs across the cover and issue six has a cut-out hole in the cover. Other issues were burned intentionally. Besides many My Own Mags have seen better days over the years as the surrounding elements have worked over the unstable paper.
This does not even mention the early Burroughs novels: the two editions of Junkie. The Ace and Digit versions like most examples of pulp fiction were printed on just that: ground wood pulp. Time has not been kind to books of this type. The glue in the binding is poor and the paper yellows and becomes brittle quickly. These books were meant to be disposable not collectible. The Library of Congress owns a substantial collection of dime store novels that as Nicholson Baker details are is a terrible state. For years the books were stored in humid and high heat conditions resulting in considerable damage. According to Michael Waters, a head conservator at the Library of Congress, interviewed by Baker, the dime novel collection was “some of the most brittle material that you could ever wish to see.” This sent my heart racing. But all is not lost. Waters adds, “Now the collection has been boxed, and if I could live for a hundred years, I would still expect them to be in the condition that they are now, providing they are not physically abused.”
Baker makes clear that the dangers of “brittle books” have been much over-hyped. The standard test for determining if a book is brittle and therefore supposedly usable is the Double Fold test. The lower right corner of the page is folded up into a triangle and then folded back to the other side of the page to a breaking point. That is not all. In some cases the page is given a tug as well. An endangered page must survive upwards of four rounds of this rough treatment to pass muster. As Baker argues, this is nonsense. With proper attention and careful use, a brittle book can be used countless times without further damage. Despite all the hand wringing, the books in our libraries are not turning into dust although they may tear in your hand due to vigorous testing. I am reminded of an overzealous grandmother demonstrating her affection by twisting one’s ear. Clearly, there are better ways of showing one’s love.
For the last couple of years, I sat up nights worrying about the state of my book collection. People have suggested expensive deacidification processes to help my books live until the next century. Yet as Baker shows and Waters knows from experience, paper is remarkably resilient. Paper does not need expensive processes to ensure their survival just respect, common sense, and desire.
As Double Fold reveals, librarians and administrators at many of the most hallowed libraries in the world, like the Library of Congress, the British Museum, the New York Public Library, and a host of university institutions, lack these needed attributes. Baker chronicles the development and implementation of the “destroying to preserve” movement. Since World War II, libraries have been waging war on paper in the form of early newspapers, and books and pamphlets in a desire to acquire more space. The main weapon in this war was microfilm and continues anew with digital scanning. The harsh truth is that scanning while it may preserve the text in another medium destroys the original paper format. Newspapers and books must be disbanded for optimal scanning. The libraries in many cases sell or destroy the disbanded sheets arguing that they have a copy so why keep the originals.
In fact there are a multitude of reasons for keeping the originals. Proponents of scanning may not like to admit it, but microfilm, to put it bluntly, sucks. Researchers hate to use it as it makes you nauseous and is a tedious process. In many cases, microfilm is of poor quality and not a faithful recreation of the original. This is most obvious if the original is in color. Microfilm may not be any more stable than paper as the microfilm also reacts with the environment and deteriorates. Due to libraries’ misguided policy, all we have now of some newspapers and books are inferior microfilm. All originals have been destroyed. Baker details these points with fascinating thoroughness.
In an interesting subplot to this story, Baker shows how this policy of destruction grew out of World War II and the Cold War. Many of the masterminds of this policy began their careers in the emerging military industrial complex of the post World War II era. Big business and shadowy government agencies all had their hand in the assault on paper. All these forces created a comedy of errors that would be funny if not so tragic. The use of the highly unstable compound diethyl zinc in a harebrained scheme to deacidify paper is just one of several such stories. This story involves government agencies, technology mad administrators, big business, and of course big money (coming from tax payers dollars, naturally).
The problem is clearly space and the solution might be simply: obtain more space. In the long run just buckling down and investing in more storage facilities might be less expensive than the millions of dollars spent on sexier technology based schemes. Such a plan is less destructive as well. Baker realizes there is a place for technology in the preservation of the world’s paper archives but these tactics have to be implemented with more respect and understanding of paper.
In the Double Fold, one of the biggest villains is microfilm which begs the question is today’s digital scanning, such as OCR, any better or are we heading down the same road. As a researcher in a law firm and an amateur researcher of literary texts, I understand the value of today’s computer technology in getting complex analyses of paper documents done. Quite simply I could not do my job with out OCR’d documents and electronic databases. Such technology allows me to complete tasks with a level of thoroughness and complexity that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.
Yet the key to the law firm’s approach that differs from the policy of the leading libraries of the 1980s and 1990s and even today is the mantra: keep the originals. That means paper if they exist. Even the most up to the minute computer reproductions are far from perfect. An office mate of mine was researching a land deed from 1907 today. This document will not scan perfectly and in the legal world a single word or even a single punctuation mark can win or lose a case. As a legal researcher for almost 10 years, I cannot say how many different databases and computer formats I have had to deal with, but paper always remains the same and remains reliable. Computer technology and even microfilm are invaluable resources but they are only one link in the chain. Paper is a necessary evil. As a collector, I happen to think it is divine.
So what happens to all these discarded newspapers, books, pamphlets and other ephemera? In some tragic circumstances, it is destroyed, but in other cases it goes to rare book and other paper dealers. Perform a search on Abebooks with the search term “library stamp” and see how many books pop up. Over 1 million books. Not all of them are relevant to this discussion but thousands of them are. Rare book dealers regularly obtain extremely valuable books that have been withdrawn from libraries, like the Library of Congress or the British Museum. Baker details several breathtaking examples of extraordinary (and in some case one of a kind) books made available in just such a manner.
Even rare William Burroughs material turns up in this fashion. In 1999 at the Nelson Lyon sale, several rare magazines came from the New Mexico University Library. It is understood that ex-libris copies of books are generally less desirable than books without a library stamp. Like everything in the book world, there are exceptions to this such as books that come from a famous person’s library and have his personal bookplate. In any case, Nelson Lyon obtained numerous magazines such as Mayfair, Film, Glebe, Insect Trust Gazette 2, and Grist from the New Mexico Library. I have been looking for years for a copy of Insect Trust Gazette 2. Possibly all the copies are in libraries. You might think that these magazines were irreparably damaged if a library got rid of them. Not so. I bought a copy of Rhinozeros #7 with the New Mexico stamp and but for the stamp the magazine is in remarkable condition. Who knows why the library got rid of such treasures but they do it everyday in an effort to create space.
I highly recommend Baker’s book to anybody interested in the future of our paper resources. Like the more publicized oil crisis with its mismanagement of resources and failure to properly develop new technologies, the paper crisis affects the entire population. And like the events surrounding the oil crisis that make headline news seemingly every minute of the day, there is nothing less at stake than the history of civilization.