In 2004, I decided to become a librarian. I did so because I love reading and I needed to make a living in a fashion that would not, or so I hoped, leave me feeling alienated and depressed. In particular, I love reading books. Often long and dedicated to a single idea, argument or story, books are also incredibly durable. They can survive coffee spills, the interior of my over-stuffed handbag, and if my niece pulls them off the table, I am not faced with a small financial crisis. The best thing about a printed book, however, is what it does not do. I cannot use it to watch television or check my email. My mother will never call me on it. My boss will never use it to interrupt me. In an age of constant media distractions, having a single object dedicated to a single activity—reading—is increasingly important. If nothing else, books that cannot be searched by keyword remind us that good ideas are not always efficiently come by—that learning takes time.
Upon entering a Master’s programme in Library Science at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, I was disappointed to discover that I was becoming not a ‘librarian’ but an ‘information professional’. The difference is very simple. The Latin word for book is liber. ‘Librarian’ has the word ‘book’ embedded in it. ‘Information professional’ does not. There is no way of knowing how much is in a name but, from what I observed during my studies, information professionals, true to their elastic and un-bookish titles, were fans of just about anything that was not a book. They thought putting video games in the young adult section was a great idea. They talked constantly about ‘re-branding’ the library via Facebook—which still, unfortunately, has the word ‘book’ in it. They even found a way to rename books: as budding information professionals, we were encouraged to use the unsexy—if still suggestive—term ‘information package’ instead. This name-change was a product of the rise of digitization. Books were being removed from the professional vocabulary because they were being removed from the shelves. Terms such as ‘information package’ imply that form is irrelevant to content—that a medium is not a message but a set of ultimately interchangeable superficial traits. We can read in this insistently generic term, however, a quiet admission that the word ‘book’ means something particular and that even information professionals were not entirely comfortable with the idea of replacing something so solidly bound to its content. Packaging, on the other hand, is superficial, disposable and infinitely replaceable.
This language is both symptomatic and generative. It reflects radical shifts in professional practice as well as creating an intellectual armature that can be used to rationalize and promote what is being named. In part, this process of rationalization is repressive—an active refusal to address significant problems presented by new electronic regimes. As such, it is the new form of an old coping mechanism. Part of a librarian’s job is preservation, which is inherently morbid. Even under the best possible circumstances, it involves a certain amount of destruction: the very idea is born of a preoccupation with loss and the practice of preservation, consequently, is akin to a form of embalming or mummification.
I began to suspect that, on some level, my colleagues recognized that something particular is lost when an electronic copy replaces a physical book. The book, as Febvre and Martin point out, ‘is a relative newcomer in Western society. It began its career in the mid-15th century, and its future is no longer certain, threatened as it is by new inventions based on different principles.’footnote1 Yet instead of talking about this threat honestly, my colleagues dreamt up euphemisms like ‘digital migration’—as if books were flying north to the Internet rather than being destroyed and replaced by digital copies. They adopted an advertiser’s devotion to satisfying the desires of adolescents for new media. Or they fixated on particular tropes of increased access, such as the needs of hypothetical single mothers, unable to take the time to visit a library. These fantasies of saving space, cutting costs and keeping everything online tended toward the evacuation of the idea of the library as a place to hold physical objects. Librarians, in other words, were beginning to conceive of the library as something other than a library. They were anticipating its disappearance.
Under the pressure of the digital zeitgeist, the relationship between librarians and books was becoming pathological. Like an individual actively ignoring a traumatic loss, the profession developed its own classically Freudian tics: for example, the paper allergy. There are a lot of nasty things in archives—dust mites, mould, air that hasn’t circulated properly in several decades, plus known skin irritants such as newspaper ink—and so it is particularly telling that archivists develop their allergies to paper: a material that has, historically, been the subject of obsessive replacement campaigns. Lay analysis has its pitfalls, but it is appropriate here: something repressed was clearly returning. What other reason would we have to talk about paper allergies and worry about acting like Joseph Goebbels?footnote2 Why would we be so reluctant to admit the obvious differences between a book and its electronic copy? Or for that matter between a book and a video game? If book digitization were truly benign, none of this would be required, but it is not. It is unavoidably destructive—even tomecidal. The invention of the printed book generated global epistemic shifts. The digital age, too, requires more than hardware upgrades and reformatting. It necessitates a whole process of re-education.footnote3
Librarians may abhor censorship, but we do destroy books. In the late 1990s, the new, tech-savvy San Francisco Library threw out 250,000 titles. Mass deaccession is not motivated by an ideological programme that requires the destruction of certain ideas. While librarians, as a professional class, do not hate Jews, or Cubist painters, or communists, history suggests that we do hate paper. And, like all such belief systems, our aversion to paper has an institutional origin that can be traced. Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper offers a history of the so-called preservation programmes that have resulted in the loss of many historic newspaper collections, giving us some insight into the real cause of our collective paper allergy.footnote4
The first technology widely employed to replace paper was microfilm. Like many innovations, its origins were military. During the mid 20th century, many of the higher-ups at the Library of Congress had defence and intelligence backgrounds. In 1941, they began microfilming historic newspaper collections. Newspapers are stored in big, bound volumes. According to Library of Congress practice at the time, the ideal method for microfilming was to shear off the binding so that the pages could be laid flat and photographed individually. This was done with a machine that was referred to as a guillotine. Once disbound, newspapers can no longer be stored and must be thrown out. For Baker, this was the practical beginning of ‘destroying to preserve’. Microfilm was not a perfect technology. Many newspaper runs are missing pages, other pages are unreadable; depending on the type of film used and how they are stored, microfilm copies can deteriorate much faster than paper. The first microfilming projects used nitrate film stock, which is notorious for spontaneously combusting in storage. Microfilming was actually much more expensive than renting some climate-controlled off-site storage.footnote5 In order for these projects to make financial sense, something else had to be going on. We librarians needed a crisis—or at least a clearly defined enemy. Which is where the active promotion of paper-hatred comes in.