Originals are Great to Have, but We Need to Be Realistic Too

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“To fend off this danger [of a lack of space and money that is needed for space], the nation’s leading librarians have spread a panic about the self-destructive quality of paper and then promoted technologies for destroying in the name of preservation.”

-From Robert Darnton’s chapter 8, “A Paean to Paper,” of The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

I thought this quote really summarizes Darnton’s chapter.  Quite fairly, he discusses the unfortunate destruction of books.  I have thought of some of the same ideas that Darnton discusses.  For instance, we have a microfilm machine in our library.  If you have ever gone down to use it (if you can figure out how, since this is not usually part of the library tour in Connections) you will see that many of the microfilm are out of place or have been damaged in some of the ways that Darnton discusses.  And, I think that most of us are more likely to look up an article online or in one of the bound periodicals than to explore this unknown medium.  It seems much better to save these texts by putting them into databases online rather than on microfilm. 

However, I always wonder what would happen if the server at the school went down for, say, a month.  No one, not even the librarians probably, could find a specific book for you.  What would we do, especially if one of our assignments says we need a peer reviewed journal article from 2005 or later?  We do have some periodicals, but everyone would end up using the same ones.  Or, people would be traveling to other libraries or other places with wireless Internet access to find the information they would need.  They could get it, but it wouldn’t be easy.  If computer and Internet access, statewide, nationally, or globally, was stopped for some reason, people would not be able to function in life as usual, literally.  So, the downsides to microfilm are almost the same as the downsides to putting all of these works on computers or the Internet. 

Despite these realistic downsides, I can see why librarians would do this, too.  I worked in Reeve’s Library for my work study job for three semesters and in a public library for about four summers, and volunteered in libraries since middle school.  Libraries, even the public ones that Darnton does not really touch on, do have realistic worries about money and space.  Last summer, I created a workshop at a library where the participants had all of their work bound in hardback binding.  This binding was done by September, but because the state budget was not passed on time, the book has yet to make it onto the shelves.  This is because of funding, not because of any carelessness or mistake on the library’s part.  I only had one book bound, but if I had 50 books bound, this would be a big issue.  The library would have to reorganize its children’s or young adult sections, would have had to remove some books from the shelves, or would have had to limit the number of books I wanted to include, wasting those books that I did have bound.  Libraries cannot just build on an extra room or floor to house extra hard copies.  I think this is the main reason why these “crazy” librarians tried to find ways to reformat the books.  They were probably less worried about whether or not they would survive and more worried about adding books to the collection that were from 2000 instead of 1800. 

Although Darnton assesses the librarians more fairly than does Nicholson Baker in his Double Fold, Darnton still does not see that both sides of this argument are valid.  Yes, more accountability should be placed in libraries, but at the same time, if every newspaper, book, magazine, video, and so on were kept, a lack of finances and space would make libraries either shut down or charge for use, which is what most libraries are openly not about at all. 


See what others have to say about this chapter.  


P.S.-Just so you know, "paean" means a song of thanksgiving or one that shows one's gratefulness to someone or something.  This just shows that Darnton is a bit biased.                        

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