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A Letter from the Director of the Harvard University Library
Revised January 2004

Dear Colleagues:

I have received a number of inquiries about Nicholson Baker's book, Double Fold, on libraries and their paper collections. While I believe that the book raises significant issues, Baker's portrait of preservation activities in American libraries is in many ways a distortion that may harm serious ef-forts to preserve the historical record.

Harvard's library preservation program, like other such initiatives at major universities, is a multifaceted one. We support an extensive program to conserve materials in their original form, carrying out treatments that range from repair of circulating collections to sophisticated conservation treatment of rare books and manu-scripts. We manage emergency preparedness, preservation education, and other programs directed toward protection and care of the collections. We have made a massive investment in upgrading the climate-control systems in our major libraries (especially Widener) and in maintaining an environment in the Harvard Depository that will significantly prolong the shelf life of the collections stored there.

Let me turn to that aspect of our work that forms the heart of Baker's attack: the reformatting of paper materials to microfilm. Baker mischaracterizes the nature and the purpose of this activity. Modern paper is indeed showing signs of early deterioration, and the collaborative effort among research libraries to create enduring backup copies of great collections ensures the survival of publications printed on very acidic paper. Benign neglect is not a viable alternative.

Over the years we have microfilmed many thousands of books. As the enclosed report reveals, nearly all have been returned to the shelf. In very rare cases, pages are so brittle that they cannot sustain gentle handling, and we must withdraw the volume. These extremely brittle materials are just the objects that most warrant microfilming. The creation of microfilm copies of works that are otherwise unreadable does in fact preserve their intellectual content for future generations, even though it may not save the object in its original physical form.

Microfilming, despite its limitations, has virtues. A film copy can be loaned to another institution while the original remains available to the Harvard community. It can serve as a reader copy of rare and unique materials too valuable or fragile to sustain heavy use. Master negatives are easy and inexpensive to preserve; user copies are easy to replace. It is possible that digital surrogates will ultimately supplant microfilm, but not until we have demonstrated our ability to manage digital files with near-100% reliability over hundreds of years. (According to published standards, the microfilm used for preservation purposes today has a minimum life expectancy of 500 years provided that it is properly created, processed, and stored.)

Baker is on more solid ground when he discusses newspaper retention in research libraries. In general, the paper copies of newspapers that libraries receive are discarded when commercial microfilm becomes available. Newspapers are extremely difficult to manage, store, and transport. Some would even say that they are difficult for researchers to use. It is partly because libraries are able to store newspapers on film that they can make so many available to the community.

Baker has a strong point in that some institution or set of institutions ought to have kept and should be keeping paper copies of domestic newspapers in a safe, climate-controlled environment. The fact that this has not happened is not the failure of any particular library but to my mind, of educational and cultural institutions, foundations, and government agencies that together might have found a coordinated means of doing this. If Double Fold has focused attention on the need for such a collaborative newspaper repository program, it will have had a beneficial effect. If the book instead leads to the destruction of many well-thought-out preservation programs, critical to scholarship, its effect will be harmful indeed.

Sincerely,

Sidney Verba
Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library

Editor's note: For an overview of Harvard's preservation programs, visit http://preserve.harvard.edu/about/programstatement.html.

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.