A Classic Turns 20: Reviewing Double Fold by Nicholson Baker

I originally wrote this post for a book review contest that was hosted by the blog Astral Codex Ten earlier this year. There were over 100 entries, out of which mine made it among the 17 finalists. The winners were determined by a combination of the host blogger’s score and public voting – a huge thanks to everyone who voted! Unfortunately, I didn’t make it into the top three, but even without that, the review generated a lot of publicity – almost 200 comments, plus more than 50 comments on Hacker News, plus several mentions on other notable blogs and websites.

Readers seemed to agree that mine was among the most controversial reviews. Not only did I make it clear that I support Baker’s arguments – major research libraries should preserve old books and newspapers in the original paper form – but I also shared his indignation at irreplacable 19th century volumes being shredded and replaced with semi-legible microfilm versions. Unfortunately, several librarians seemed to think that by attacking malpractice in specific institutions, I was denigrating the profession as a whole.

As I repost the review here at The Fate of Books for librarian and non-librarian readers alike, I’d like to stress that I do not see the mass discarding and destruction of historical material as an inseparable part of being a librarian. I wouldn’t be so keen on writing about recklessness and ignorance if I couldn’t also point out examples of librarians excelling at their job – acquiring new historical material for their collections, carefully preserving what they already have, and perhaps most importantly, making sure that discards and unwanted acquisitions are donated to the public (or sold) rather than destroyed. Librarians and collectors are natural allies – only when they join forces can written heritage truly be safeguarded for future generations.

***

If you enter a major research library in the US today and request to see a century-old issue of a major American newspaper, such as Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, or major-but-defunct newspapers such as the New York “World,” odds are that you will be directed to a computer or a microfilm reader. There, you’ll get to see black-and-white images of the desired issue, with individual numbers of the newspaper often missing and much of the text, let alone pictures, barely decipherable.

The libraries in question mostly once had bound issues of these newspapers, but between the 1950s and the 1990s, one after another, they ditched the originals in favor of expensive microfilmed copies of inferior quality. They continued doing this even while the originals became perilously rare; the newspapers themselves were mostly trashed, or occasionally sold to dealers who cut them up and dispersed them. As a consequence, many of these publications are now rarer than the Gutenberg Bible, and some 19th and 20th century newspapers have ceased to exist in a physical copy anywhere in the world.

When Double Fold by Nicholson Baker came out in 2001, it was described as The Jungle of the American library system. After 20 years, the book remains universally known, sometimes admired but often despised, among librarians. The reason for their belligerence is that Baker publicly revealed a decades-long policy of destruction of primary materials from the 19th and 20th centuries, based on a pseudoscientific notion that books on wood-pulp paper are quickly turning to dust, coupled with a misguided futuristic desire to do away with outdated paper-based media. As a consequence, perfectly well preserved books with centuries of life still ahead of them were hastily replaced with an inferior medium which has, at the moment that I am writing this review, already mostly gone the way of the dodo. Despite its notoriety among librarians, however, Double Fold is little-known among the general public, even compared to Baker’s other non-fiction and his novels.

This is a shame, since the mass destruction of books and newspapers by libraries in the post-war era deserves to be better known as one of the most egregious failures of High Modernism, comparable with the wackiest plans of Le Corbusier. The story combines an excessive reliance on simplistic mathematical models, wilful ignorance to the desires of actual library-users and scholars, embracement of miniaturization and modernization as terminal values, and an almost complete disregard of 19th century books as historical artefacts. Unlike industrial farms, which can be broken up, and Brasília-style skyscrapers, which can be torn down and replaced with something else, the losses caused by the mass deaccessioning of books and newspapers from libraries were often irreplaceable.

As part of the uproar that followed the book’s publication, the Association of Research Libraries published an online anti-Baker FAQ, and in 2002, the book “Vandals in the Stacks?” by Richard J. Cox came out, presenting an attempted refutation of Baker’s theses. I have read both of these and discuss Cox’s arguments later on, but I must admit in advance that I was mostly convinced by Baker’s argumentation much more than by that of his opponents. Nonetheless, it is uncommon to have a polemical book receive a book-length response, and anyone interested in Baker’s thesis is advised to check out Cox as well.[1]

***

Microfilm

The story of Double Fold might be said to begin in the 1930s with the advent of microfilming. The idea of photographing documents to make them more portable had been around at least since the 1870s, but it took 60 more years until microfilm technology was sufficiently advanced to become attractive for libraries. The basic idea was simple: you took pictures of every page of a book, put them together into a roll of film stored in a small box, and when someone wanted to “read” the book, they put the film into a large TV-like device that magnified the image onto a screen, with a pair of buttons that you could use to navigate left and right.

A microfilm device and its user in the 1980s.

Baker claims that microfilm got a big boost during WWII, when it was often used by spies to hide documents, and by the US government back home to disseminate military information. This allure continued during the Cold War years, and it helped that many of the librarians keenest on microfilm were ex-military men who wanted to apply what they had learned in the Army to their civilian jobs. Microfilms were small and felt modern, but unfortunately, many of the advantages they presented to the military were not exactly advantages for libraries as well. Baker quotes Vernon D. Tate, an Army microfilm specialist who went to become chief librarian at MIT:

Books may not be blown to bits or easily consumed by fire; microfilms if capture is inevitable can be rapidly and completely consumed, and as easily replaced through the making of prints from master negatives.

Apart from being flammable, microfilms also had several more commonly encountered disadvantages. Baker describes reading them as a “brain-poaching, gorge-lifting trial,” especially when the images had a poor resolution.

You feel as if you’re mowing an endless monochromatic lawn, sliding the film gate this way and that, fiddling with the image rotation dial and the twitchily restive motor switch. If you have a date and a page number, you look that one citation up and leave; you’re rarely tempted to spend several hours in the daily contextual marsh. ‘Certainly the patron’s desire to browse through back issues of newspapers is almost completely gone – people rarely browse through microfilm’: so wrote E. E. Duncan in Microform Review in 1973.

Not all libraries might have attached flight sickness bags to their microfilm readers like a Canadian library mentioned by Baker did, but it is telling that microfilm readers never became popular outside of libraries and government institutions, despite having been in use for over half a century. Baker mentions one scientific journal that was published only on microfilm, which is actually still more than I would have expected; I’m unaware of any book ever published exclusively on microfilm.

Rebecca Rego Barry was one of the researchers who benefited from a treasure trove of newspapers that had been saved from dispersal by Baker immediately before Double Fold was published. She used them to sift through a decade’s worth of Herald Tribune, searching for articles written by a columnist whom she was analyzing for her thesis. “Could the articles be found on microfilm? Theoretically they could, with another year and an extra set of eyes, if whoever had microfilmed it had done a decent job in the first place.”

The “decent job” part turns out to be really important. Because you need a machine to read them, microfilms are harder to casually inspect for quality, which gave them the nickname “the invisible product.” Baker enjoys listing examples of lazy operators skipping pages and producing incomplete films, but the really big issue is technical. If you aren’t very careful when developing the microfilm, “residual hypo” – image-processing chemicals that weren’t rinsed away during processing – will damage the microfilm and blur the text, often beyond the point of legibility. Put all this together and you get to the number of 50% of all received microfilms that were rejected by the Library of Congress in the mid-1970s. The problem? Over half of these rejected microfilms weren’t returned to the vendor, but were accepted into the Library’s collection despite their faults, such was the hurry to modernize.

Lastly, microfilms themselves don’t age very well. Just like paper, there are different kinds of plastics being used for microfilm (as well as microfiche, which is a lower-resolution version of microfilm, and similar-but-abandoned technologies such as Microcards), and Baker lists the ways in which each of them is sensitive to damage. The main form of damage is fading due to prolonged light exposure, but even worse is what can happen if all that focused light on a small strip of film causes the temperature to increase too much, which can lead to the film basically getting blotted out.

Sometimes, all of this can lead to ironic consequences, such as when Baker tried to consult the papers of Verner Clapp, the number-two person in the Library of Congress during the 1950s and one of the most passionate supporters of microfilm.

All Clapp’s notes are on paper, easily read today. Clapp’s CIA file, on the other hand, is an unfortunate victim of the Cold War mania for micro-preservation: it looks to have been inexpertly filmed at some point, and it has undergone a severe fading, as microfilm does when technicians don’t take care to rinse off the hypo fixative. The copy that the CIA sent me is poignantly stamped with the words BEST COPY AVAILABLE on almost every undecipherable page. Some of these pages are, though uncensored, completely unreadable.

Of course, it would be easy for none of this to matter at all in 2021. Despite its downsides, microfilm had the major advantage that it could be copied at will, which made a bunch of rare items suddenly accessible to libraries all over the country. Baker often stresses that he has nothing against the technology as such, as long as it is used merely to supplement paper collections. As it happens, however, this was not the case. What happened instead was that microfilm became part of the plan to get rid of paper almost entirely.

Brittle paper

The second key part of this jigsaw is paper deterioration. Paper from the 18th century and earlier usually ages quite well, the reason being that it was produced from rags, i.e. old clothes and other discarded textile. The upside of rag paper is that it was made from 100% recycled material, while the obvious downside is that there is a limited supply of old rags in the world. Around 1850, this led to the introduction of wood-pulp paper. Wood is plentiful, but using it to make paper usually required procedures that resulted in a slightly acidic final product, and the acids slowly damage the cellulose fibers of which paper consists. This is why paper made after 1850 often goes yellow over time, and is much more brittle than either ancient or modern rag paper.

Before reading Baker’s book, I had heard the story about the inevitable slow decay of wood-based paper a bunch of times, and it was usually told as a categorical truth: wood-based paper is trash, it will literally fall apart sooner or later, and the only way to really preserve it are semi-experimental treatments to remove the acids from the paper. I scratched my head at this, since I know from my own collection that there are lots of different kinds of paper. There are plenty of 100-year-old books on wood-pulp paper which look brand-new, or else the paper is slightly yellowed at the edges but otherwise OK, or perhaps the paper has gone entirely yellow and is obviously brittle, but as long as you treat the book well, it isn’t going to fall apart, and you can read it a number of times without any major damage. I always thought that I’m somehow affected by survivorship bias, and didn’t give the matter too much consideration.

It wasn’t until I read Double Fold that Baker gave me the answer to this conundrum. Yes, Baker contends, paper does go brittle over time, but the reaction proceeds much more slowly without oxygen and light, which means that a closed book on a shelf will age at a negligible rate (loose sheets of paper exposed to the air, however, will quickly turn yellow). Also, once the chemicals on the surface of the paper have reacted with the air, the overall reaction will slow down and the book will age more slowly, rather than more quickly, as the time progresses. Most importantly, paper can be brittle in the sense that it will quickly tear, or fall apart when crumbled, but this isn’t relevant to the way books are used in a research library. As long as you use a 19th-century wood-paper book as you’re supposed to (that is to say, just as carefully as you would consult a 19th-century rag-paper book), it will survive without much trouble. There’s no reason why a somewhat brittle yellowish book couldn’t still be on the shelves a century from now.

Two bound volumes of the journal Planinski vestnik from my collection, printed in successive years in the early 1900s; they were almost certainly produced on the same kind of paper. One of the volumes is falling apart, the other is in perfect condition. The difference? Heavy use by inconsiderate readers, not some kind of mysterious innate tendency of paper to crumble into pieces.

If all this is true, how come we’ve come to believe that wood-pulp paper is terminally endangered and turning to dust? Baker’s answer is: bad science. Most of what we know about the long-term fate of paper comes from studies on accelerated aging, where researchers usually treated paper at high temperatures (i.e. baked it in an oven) until it broke down completely, and then used the Arrhenius equation or its derivations to extrapolate how long it would take for the same process to occur at room temperature. Of course, this is just a model, and it has a substantial downside that it was never actually tested against reality; as Baker pointed out (and Cox doesn’t object to anywhere in his refutation), there had never been a study performed over a longer period of time that would actually demonstrate how paper ages naturally, and how much strength it loses over decades in the library, rather than minutes in the oven.

Accelerated aging tests are difficult to do on each book individually, so in order to quantify the fragility of their books, librarians came up with a much simpler test – the “double fold” test from which Baker’s book takes its title. To do a double fold test, you take the corner of a book, fold it, press down the fold, unfold the paper, and fold it again to the other side. You keep doing this until the paper snaps. For each pair of folds that it endures, it gets one unit of double fold value (dfv): e.g. if it breaks after the first fold, it has a dfv of 0.5. Each library has its own threshold of how few folds a book must endure to become officially brittle, but the official implication of the fold test is always the same: a book with a low fold value is at the end of its lifespan, and the only thing we can do for it is some sort of palliative care, if not euthanasia.

Baker will have none of this. He agrees that while the fold test captures some aspect of paper quality, it doesn’t have much relevance to the expected lifespan of books, or the number of uses they can endure before some sort of catastrophic collapse. Instead, Baker proposes, half-seriously and half-in-jest, a new means of testing the durability of books: “the Turn Endurance Test.” You take a book, open it in the middle, and flip the page, as you would when reading. Then you flip it back. Baker applies both tests to a book from 1893 which he happens to be reading at the moment. The double fold test produces a value below 0.5 – a death sentence in most libraries. The Turn Endurance Test, however, shows that the same book can endure hundreds of turns of a single page without any kind of damage.

That’s not how the librarians saw it, though. Baker chronicles how the rhetoric about brittle paper progressed during the 1970s and 1980s and became increasingly extreme. At first, brittle paper was endangering the long-term survival of modern books. Then, it was an immediate threat to their survival. Then, the books weren’t just falling apart anymore: they were literally turning into dust. By the late 1980s, the catastrophic rhetoric had reached its apex: “10 million books in major American libraries will not survive this century” was written in 1988; “more than a quarter of books in libraries will not survive this century,” in 1990, ten years before the century’s end. Needless to say, they did survive – or rather, would have.

As long as the books were merely described as brittle and fragile, one might still propose to save them through the traditional means: restricting access, careful handling, and conservation, combined with non-destructive imaging to reduce the number of researchers who needed to consult the originals. However, if these books were literally on their death bed, about to disappear into thin air no matter what we did for them, then…well…there was no reason why we should do anything more for them. We might as well chuck them out.

Shelf Space and Book Destruction

The 1988 film Slow Fires, which turned its director Terry Sanders into a household name in American libraries, was one of the cleverest pieces of anti-paper propaganda ever made, and Baker devotes considerable attention to it. The movie starts slowly, with scenes of crumbling marble inscriptions and papyri, accompanied by sorrowful music, followed by clips from interviews with famous scholars, all of whom emphasize how much they value working with primary sources. In the following scene, we are led through the Florence library in the aftermath of the destructive floods of the river Arno, and through the ruins of a nameless burnt-out library, accompanied by more of the same solemn music. A sensitive viewer might have shed a tear at these scenes, and it looks obvious that this is a movie about the value of preserving our cultural heritage, and the importance of historical artifacts.

In the scene that follows, we enter a preservation department of a major library, where the microfilming of a rare 1920s bound newspaper is just underway. The worker explains the microfilming process to us, while she slowly slashes the volume’s binding and proceeds to cut up individual pages and feed them into the filming device.

Wait, what?

The process in question is called guillotining a book, and according to Baker, it was the logical outcome of the paper-brittleness myth, combined with the passion for microfilming. What made these two deadly was a secret ingredient – the desire to free up shelf space. There were few librarians in history who did not at some point complain about the lack of space. However, this particular problem always had two different solutions: either increase space, or reduce the number of books. For large research libraries, the first option was always the default one, since it was obvious that with the growth of human knowledge, the number of books necessary for future researchers would grow as well.

All of this changed after WWII. In a wave of futurist ideology that swept across US libraries, it suddenly wasn’t desirable anymore to keep expanding and piling up paper. Just like computer-manufacturers kept trying to compress their machines, a good modern library was suddenly a library that kept miniaturizing. If not literally to get smaller over time, the library of the future should at least try to keep its size constant, no matter how large the influx of new publications might be. Of course, this meant that even in the largest US libraries, there would be increasingly little room for paper publications.

Baker quotes Fremont Rider, a poet-cum-businessman-cum-librarian who pioneered Microcards (the unsuccessful precursors of microfilm) and whose work had an immense influence on later Librarians of Congress. A library which has outgrown its building could simply buy another building, wrote Rider, but alas, increasing storage space is just “a tacit confession of past failure” – hence, librarians should feel ashamed of themselves for relying on such low-tech solutions. He then introduced the concept of a Microcard, and stated that, with this technology, “for the first time in over two thousand years, libraries were being offered a chance to begin again.” Such a technological shift would produce a saving in storage costs which “came gratifyingly close to 100%” – assuming we got rid of all the books, of course.

It didn’t require a huge leap of logic, then, for Rider to propose that Microcards should be made by cutting up the books in question before filming them, since there won’t be a need for these books afterwards. Baker follows Rider’s intellectual genealogy through Verner Clapp at the Library of Congress, who wrote a eulogy to Rider in a 1964 library science textbook, and through the network of Clapp’s own disciples. One of Clapp’s protégés, John H. Ottemiller, wrote pointedly in the 1960s that the library of the future has a “need for putting greater emphasis on the discarding of materials rather than their storage.”

Of course, microfilming a book isn’t free, and microfilming an entire library can be much more expensive than just storing it somewhere. After a major cost-benefit analysis came out in 1957 which disfavored microfilm, Clapp responded by having the Library of Congress commission its own study in 1961. The conclusion he got was that assuming a library could sell enough copies of its microfilm, the process would pay for itself – but only if they sped it up by cutting up the books and filming them page-by-page. Consequently, microfilming could be performed without any downsides – none, that is, “except the destruction of the text.

Thus sprang into action the ominously named “preservation by destruction” (a phrase actually used by its proponents, not my or Baker’s invention). Baker likes to point out the Orwellian way in which modern-day book destroyers hijacked the very language of book salvaging. The microfilm departments in libraries were named “Preservation Departments,” in the vein of “Ministry of Peace” and “Ministry of Love.” Of course, the public was mostly unaware that the primary task of a Preservation Department is to cut up books and trash them afterwards. Inside the library, tensions often arose between the people working in conservation departments, whose job was to carefully restore old books, and those in “preservation” departments, whose job was to destroy them. Baker speaks with an employee in a book conservation department, who recalls that the microfilmers were often referred to unflatteringly as “thugs” – in return, the book restorers got themselves the nickname “pansies.”

Once the system was in place, it fed on itself. The logic was as follows: a library that bought a microfilm imaging device needed to use it as much as possible, in order to recoup the costs. Part of the profits came from sales of microfilm to other libraries, but a more certain profit came from the reduction in storage costs. Of course, if the books were going to be discarded anyway, it was hard to resist cutting them up to reduce filming costs even more. And if everyone involved believed that the books were terminally brittle anyway, there was no need to feel bad about any of this – they were on the death bed anyway, and if they only had one use left in them before they spontaneously disintegrated, then that last use better happen in the microfilming department.

How did Slow Fires get away with showing the dismemberment of rare items to the public? By pretending that nobody wants to be doing any of this. “Nobody likes microfilm,” says one of the scholars interviewed by the crew. In another shot, the historian Barbara Tuchman explains how she did research on one of her books by combing through old microfilms – she would have much preferred working with paper books, but given that she only had microfilm on offer, she accepted this as a fact of life and pulled through. Even the worker who is filmed cutting up the old newspapers indulges in a moment’s reflection. “It kind of bothers me to guillotine newspaper collection, because I know the actual papers are not going to go back on the shelves,” she notes. The hesitation does not last for longer than a few moments, though: “but to contain the information on microfilm is the ideal way to preserve the newspapers.

Guillotining caught on film in Slow Fires. The entire movie can be viewed on Youtube, albeit in low resolution.

Of course, it wasn’t the ideal way. Baker’s frustrated attempts to get America’s chief librarians to explain their discarding policy feel like an endless progression of motte and bailey. The motte is that terminally endangered books need to be microfilmed to preserve their intellectual content; the bailey is that libraries should ditch paper books and switch to microfilm in order to modernize and miniaturize. Baker notes that several newspapers, such as The New York Times, produced a few special durable rag-paper editions every day, specifically for libraries. All for nothing: the libraries ended up ditching these volumes nonetheless. Patricia Battin was the president of the national Commission of Preservation (!) and Access and one of the most ardent supporters of microfilm:

’Yes, I’m sure that there are books that were microfilmed that probably were not that brittle,’ Battin says now. ‘We had great debates among the populace as to whether you took the collection approach or the individual-copy approach, and decided for the initial filming grants that the collection approach made the most sense.’ To me she quoted the French adage: ‘The best is the enemy of the good.’ Of course, the bad can be the enemy of the good, too.

What did we lose?

Baker spends a considerable amount of time proving that microfilming was a losing proposition in the financial sense. He’s probably right, but few people care about financial malpractice in libraries enough to read 300 pages about it. Instead, 20 years after its publication, the value of Double Fold hinges entirely on the value of historical material that was lost from US libraries during the microfilm craze, and that is difficult or impossible to replace. So, what did we lose?

1)      Even though microfilm was almost exclusively a black-and-white technique, a lot of the material discarded in favor of microfilmed copies was in color. A major part of Baker’s book is the story of how he saved a large amount of historic newspapers that had been put on auction by the British Library and were, in many cases, the most complete print runs still in existence. Among these was the New York “World,” an illustrated turn-of-the-century newspaper which once had a readership of one million and which had catapulted Joseph Pulitzer into fame and fortune. Many of the issues Baker acquired were possibly the last in existence, and in Double Fold, Baker poignantly juxtaposes pictures of the original full-color illustrations with the same images in the microfilmed editions of World (black-and-grey blobs, barely recognizable as illustrations).

Old or new, illustrated newspapers didn’t take the transition to microfilm well. Here is the Chicago Daily Tribune‘s front page on the day the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Notably, Cox argues in “Vandals in the Stacks?” that trashing these illustrated newspapers – they were independently discarded by a number of different libraries – had been a mistake and that librarians should have kept them around in the original. He also argues that discarding things should be a necessary part of being a librarian and that librarians are perfectly capable of judging what needs to be discarded and what doesn’t, without the interference of outsiders like Baker. He doesn’t seem to be aware of any contradiction here.

2)      When libraries each have their own copies of a certain book or a newspaper, there is a high degree of redundancy involved. Major newspapers in particular would usually print several editions a day; each library would only end up receiving and storing one of these. More importantly, each library would randomly lack a few issues here and there, but you could probably find these in the next library if you needed them. 

Conversely, the whole point of microfilming was that only one library produces the microfilm and then sells copies to all the others, which can now happily discard their own print runs. Since Library of Congress regulations officially declared a microfilmed print run of a newspaper complete even if it was missing “a few” issues for each month, this means that plenty of officially sanctioned microfilmed print runs had holes in them. If a certain issue wasn’t in the possession of whoever had done the microfilming, it would slowly disappear from the record entirely, as everyone else would get rid of the bound volumes in favor of microfilm.

It’s interesting that Cox’s book is centered on a refutation of this single point. His main argument is that libraries can’t keep everything – even keeping a single copy of every historical US newspaper (or other publication) in some library or other in the USA would be so taxing as to be literally impossible. He doesn’t explain how libraries managed to find enough money to do exactly this up to the 1950s (despite the US being a much poorer country back then, and with a much smaller percentage of GDP diverted to public services). In the end, he forfeits his entire argument when he mentions in passing that working in Austrian libraries is relatively tedious because they hold so few items in microfilm. Indeed, at least in Europe, librarians seem to be managing the impossible task of storing a few copies of every historical publication quite well.

3)      Obviously, an image does not in any way preserve the material aspect of the paper or the binding. If you’re researching the different kinds of paper used for newspaper production in the 19th and 20th centuries, you’re out of luck. Baker mentions two particularly annoying examples. The first was a newspaper edition from 1830 which claimed to have been printed on an experimental run of wood paper, decades before wood-pulp paper became common. Ironically, the newspaper in question was mentioned in a famous 1940s textbook on papermaking, but the author of the textbook was unable to do any chemical analyses, since the librarians jealously guarded the volumes and wouldn’t let him take any samples. When Baker rang up the library in question in the 1990s, they told him that they had ditched the newspapers. 

The second example is even more interesting. In the 1850s, the US imported rags for paper production from Egypt on several occasions, and several journalists at the time reported that the deliveries had consisted of mummy wrappings. At least one newspaper, the Syracuse Daily Standard, proclaimed to its readers that it was being printed on mummy paper. This could in principle be verified by molecular analysis, but unfortunately almost all the libraries which had carried print runs of the Daily Standard had thrown them away. It’s possible that this helped us avoid the mummies’ curse, though in my opinion, getting recycled a second time made them even angrier. Maybe having lost so much historical material was part of the curse.

One of the articles on the subject of mummy paper was published in The Printer journal in 1858. Does anyone want to guess why the image is such poor quality?

4)      Most notably, an old book or newspaper isn’t just a source of information, it’s also a historical artifact. A downside of Baker’s book is that he largely accepts the terms of the game as dictated by the librarians, and focuses on the informational value of the destroyed volumes. It’s not that libraries were completely oblivious to the inherent value of old books, but rather that they established a dichotomy: on one side, there was a small number of “rare” books with obvious historical value, such as inscribed first editions and Renaissance-era books, and on the other side, there was the mass of ordinary books, which were supposed to have value exclusively as vehicles for words and pictures. 

Baker counters that this is a wrong way to look at books, since there is no clear demarcation line anywhere: every book is, to an extent, both text and artifact. If nobody counters the idea that a pamphlet from 1700 should be preserved for its own sake, even if there is a perfect electronic copy available, then the same should also hold for a rare pamphlet, book, or newspaper edition from 1900. In fact, Baker’s problem is that he doesn’t have much material to argue against, since the great proponents of microfilm had mostly been so oblivious to this issue that they didn’t even bother mentioning it. 

He does, however, manage to find a quote by Patricia Battin, which could serve as the epitome of the High Modernist mindset in American libraries: “the value, in intellectual terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been satisfactorily established.” Everyone might have hated microfilm, everyone might have preferred working with the original historical artifact – but as long as the value of the artifact wasn’t satisfactorily established, there was no reason why not to trash it.

***

At the time when Baker was writing Double Fold, microfilm as an information medium was already on its way out, and most American newspapers and books had already been transferred to microfilm anyway, which means that it wouldn’t have made much sense for anyone to microfilm them again. Microfilming was quickly giving way to digitalization, but it was fairly easy to produce digital copies from microfilm (rather than from the paper originals themselves). Why not let bygones be bygones then, especially since Baker himself admitted that the destruction of books and newspapers had abated during the 1990s, thanks in part to the “abolitionist” campaign of a few scholars and librarians, led by Thomas Tanselle, a professor at Columbia.

Baker was worried that unless we quickly learned something from the mistakes of the postwar decades, we were bound to make the same mistakes again, and even more egregiously so. It is possible to scan microfilms to produce digital editions of books and newspapers. However, because of all the problems outlined above, from poor legibility to deterioration of film over time to missing pages or incomplete print runs, we often prefer to use the original source once again. The librarians who lobbied for their collections to be microfilmed loved to emphasize that this was a lasting solution, but a mere couple of decades later, Baker notes, we might have to do everything all over again.

The only difference is that in the postwar decades, there were still a lot of historical books and newspapers around to cut up and microfilm, whereas at the time that Baker was writing his book, many of these publications had remained only in a single copy, or even disappeared in printed form entirely. Guillotining books is unnecessary in order to acquire a good image, but it had already been unnecessary in the 1950s or the 1980s, and that didn’t stop librarians from practicing it nonetheless. Baker was worried that if we guillotined newspapers and books again during digitalization, we would be destroying even the last few survivors of the post-war carnage.

Even more importantly, for every book that librarians guillotined during microfilming, several other copies of the same book were ditched by other libraries around the country after they had bought the microfilm produced by the first library. In some cases, these books were sold, and thus preserved by collectors (although in the case of bound newspapers, even when these were sold, they were usually cut up and resold piecemeal by the buyers, which means that they ended up dispersed beyond anyone’s ability to collect a full print run ever again).

Many other books were, however, simply trashed. As a combination of bizarre rules, bureaucratic stubbornness, fear of publicity, and simple inertia, it’s apparently very rare for American libraries to simply donate discarded books to the public. Sometimes the books are sold, but usually they are thrown into the dumpster, regardless of their value. Baker mentions the case of a researcher who tried to take home a copy of a rare book after it had been guillotined and filmed by the Library of Congress; she was told that this is against the rules, and the book was trashed. On the antiquarian book market, copies of the same edition are worth around $2000. Judging by what librarians themselves write online, the dumpster has apparently remained the default option for getting rid of discarded books to the present day.

This example of a full dumpster of books is from April 2021. The reassuring headline: “Dumpster of Books by Stockwell-Mudd Library Part of Routine Practice.

Twenty years after the publication of Double Fold, the frequency of library books being guillotined for imaging is probably lower that it was in Baker’s time, or at any point after WWII, with the main reason being that there are relatively few books around that haven’t yet been imaged by someone. It’s generally cheaper to pay for someone else’s scans than to do the scanning yourself. However, the very ubiquity of online resources also provides an incentive for libraries to continue purging their collections and trashing the unwanted material. There are plenty of reports of major libraries trashing their books, though the public seldom learns which books were trashed, and how valuable they might have been.

In this sense, all of Baker’s warnings – the losses we face when discarding a variety of paper editions of the same publication, and replacing them with a single digital copy – are still very up-to-date. The only difference is that because libraries nowadays contain so much material that was printed, from the late 1980s onward, on acid-free paper, the brittleness of paper is less useful as an excuse for large-scale deaccessioning. Instead, the main excuses nowadays are lack of space, the presence of digital copies, and the claim that nobody will ever need these books again, anyway. Double Fold provides plenty of reasons why these books and newspapers will continue to be sought after, and why the copies will never be perfect substitutes of the original.


[1] Unfortunately, only part of “Vandals in the Stacks?” is actually spent refuting Baker’s arguments. Instead, Cox goes off on a number of tangents, including a long refutation of an unrelated essay by Baker from 1994, several complaints about Baker not discussing archives and archivists in Double Fold (Cox is an archivist by profession), and an entire chapter of Cox’s own professional autobiography, whose relevance to the topic of the book is never explained. 

Double Fold by Nicholson Baker: Invitation to Read My Review

The Fate of Books hasn’t been very active in these last few months, but that doesn’t mean your writer wasn’t engaged in blogging. Some of you might already know the blog Astral Codex Ten (ACX; formerly known as Slate Star Codex), one of the best places online for discussions of science, history, philosophy, politics, and all other areas of nerd interest. In the beginning of the year, ACX announced a book review competition where readers could review a book of their own choice. The finalists would be posted on ACX, after which blog readers could vote for their favourites and thus determine the winner.

True to my calling, I decided to review Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold. For those unfamiliar with the book, Double Fold is an exposé of the mass destruction of books and newspapers that took place in American libraries after WWII. The main culprit is microfilm, a technology which feels hopelessly outdated today. From the 1950s down to the turn of the century, however, it was seen as a revolutionary breakthrough that would allow libraries to store huge amounts of information in a tiny space.

Unfortunately, libraries took the idea and ran with it: either they cut up their books and newspapers for microfilming and trashed the remains, or they bought microfilms elsewhere and then got rid of the redundant paper copies. At least when it comes to newspapers, this means that many 19th and 20th century papers don’t exist in the original anymore at all. All we have are blurred microfilm copies, all in black and white.

Out of more than 100 submissions, the review of Double Fold was shortlisted as one of 17 finalists, which testifies to the continuing relevance of Baker’s book. You can read and comment on the review here; there is also an audio version available here. New finalist reviews continued to be posted on ACX for several months, but now the last one has finally been made public and today the voting has begun. You can read all the finalists here (mine is #6) and vote for your favourite(s) here until the end of June. 😉 After the contest is over, I will of course also post the full review at The Fate of Books.

Inside the Dark Library: A Review of Book Tombs by Erik W. Steinhauer

Eric W. Steinhauer is a household name among German-speaking bibliophiles. Steinhauer, a lawyer-cum-theologian-cum-librarian, has carved out a niche for himself over the years as an expert on the dark side of books and libraries: libraries as places of death and burial; contagious and deadly books; the association between libraries, the Devil, and monsters… His books are perhaps best characterized as non-fictional spinoffs of The Name of the Rose, with each of them discussing a different aspect of the grisly association between books and death. After several such volumes, published from 2006 onward, he brought all of these topics together into a primer on the dark side of the book, which came out in 2014 at the publisher Lambert Schneider.

Book Tombs (Büchergrüfte), as the volume is called, is fairly short at 134 pages and might best be thought of as an essay about the future of the book. Steinhauer is writing not least from the position of a library director who is unsatisfied with the role that libraries are increasingly playing in a digital world: places to hang out and work on one’s laptop, with perhaps a paper notebook alongside, but with increasingly few actual books being perused by the patrons. Afraid of being reduced to insignificance over the course of the 21st century, many libraries are trying to make themselves as friendly as possible to the reader, in order to attract a varied clientele.

Steinhauer understands where this reasoning comes from, but claims that the nice and fluffy approach is insufficient to secure the future of the library. Instead, he makes a proposal that is both simple and ingenious: in order to have a future, libraries must purposely cultivate their dark aspects. In his own words, “the library of the future will be morbid, or it will cease to be.” He slowly develops this idea during the course of the book, and only states it clearly at the end, so let’s first follow him along the way.

He starts with a chapter on the most obvious connection between books and death, which is at the same time perhaps the most forgotten one. In a time when most public libraries are large well-lit spaces with light music playing in the background, we have forgotten that libraries used to be places to preserve human remains. The library-as-burial-place has a rich history – Steinhauer traces it back to ancient Rome, where strict rules on intramural interment were sometimes loosened to allow burial in a library, down through the Middle Ages and right up to the 19th century. The connection worked both ways, so that just as people could be buried in a library, a library could be constructed on top of a burial site. Even today, libraries within secularized churches preserve the remains of people who wanted to be buried close to God, but instead found themselves beneath the Geography section.

Human bones could also be present in libraries as a memento mori; St. Jerome is usually depicted in his study with a skull nearby, such as in this painiting by Jan Massys.

Of course, any kind of burial is dark, and personally, I could hardly wish for a better place to have my remains interred than beneath the right kind of library. Then again, it is hard to say what the scores of people who were interred in a library against their will would comment on such burial practices. Before “cabinets of curiosities” were divided up into museums and libraries in the 18th century, it was common for this sort of library to include skeletons and other human remains as anatomical exhibits. These were so common that it’s hard to find much data on them, since few contemporaries would note such trivial details. The human bones were often of unknown origin, but it’s reasonable to assume that many belonged to executed criminals, whose mortal remains could legally be used for scientific purposes. Less common, but still not unheard of, were books bound in human skin, oftentimes exposés of the lives of famous criminals, bound in their personal skin to enhance the reading experience.

One other peculiar creature that Steinhauer has brought back from obscurity is the library mummy, which was a common feature of European libraries between the 17th and 19th centuries, when most of them were relocated to museums. The connection between books and mummies is multi-layered and Steinhauer revels in its unwrapping [pun intended]. Apart from gracing many library halls as Oriental curiosities, mummies were themselves both texts (as the wooden coffins were covered in inscriptions) and sources of texts (especially Books of the Dead, which were regularly tucked into the wrappings). Lastly, it continues to be debated by historians whether mummies were in fact used in the 19th century to make paper. As the story goes, the US imported mummy wrappings from Egypt on at least one occasion to feed its booming paper industry; the story is likely exaggerated, but as the Italians say, se non è vero, è ben trovato.

If it weren’t for the Egyptians, we wouldn’t have the Liber Linteus Zagrabiensis. The only extant book in the Etruscan language, written on cloth, was reused at some point as mummy wrappings.

Another creature given prominence in Book Tombs is the library vampire. Here, Steinhauer again shows himself an expert on the subject, even though the reader is occasionally unsure how vampirology ties into the general framework of his book. At first, we get the impression that vampires belong into this narrative because they were often written about in books; of course, the same can be said of any other dark and paranormal phenomenon, ever. Only later are we directed to the prominent position that books and libraries tend to play in all the major vampire novels. In a detour into literary criticism, Steinhauer highlights a literary device that was used by Bram Stoker in Dracula: at the end of the novel, Stoker’s characters are amazed that apart from their own notes and diaries, they cannot find any evidence that the action which had just transpired actually took place. In this tongue-in-cheek way, Stoker underlined that vampires are nothing but paper beings, daemons conjured up from books and entirely dependent on them.

In a book which discusses the connection between books and death, an obvious question is, what about the death of books themselves? Steinhauer briefly mentions mold, as well as the “slow fire” that is consuming old books printed on acidic paper. Soon after that, however, we reach the subject of modern-day destruction of books, especially by libraries during their deaccessioning. Here the book is at its weakest, as Steinhauer isn’t quite sure what his opinion is, so he appears to be trying to cobble one together as he writes.

He admits quite candidly that German libraries trash enough books each year to fill a decent-sized university library. Is this good or bad? We’re not sure. He opens up the debate about whether libraries should aim to preserve books even if these aren’t being loaned out or consulted anymore. After a brief discussion, he concludes with a closing sentence, “it is reasonable to preserve old books,” which leaves a very lukewarm impression. He also occasionally slides into cynicism. For example, he remarks that thanks to the great losses of ancient literature during the Middle Ages, we can more easily discern the masterpieces of antiquity without them being obscured by the chaff of mediocre writers. Does this mean that it would be easier to appreciate the greatness of Dickens and Browning, had all the works of their less-notable Victorian contemporaries suddenly disappeared? If anything, I think the truth is the opposite.

Deaccessioning in action at the Humboldt University Library in Berlin.

Of course, Steinhauer is still writing from the position of a library director here. Is he intentionally sounding indecisive in order to avoid attracting the ire of his colleagues? Nicholson Baker created a storm when his book Double Fold came out in 2001, but Baker was a freelance novelist, an outsider, and thus could afford his campaign against libraries’ destruction of books. I imagine Steinhauer has his reasons why he prefers to tread lightly on such topics. Perhaps he also publishes more opinionated writings under a pseudonym somewhere. Only time will tell.

If books can be discarded and killed by their owners, they also have some power to return the favour. Here Steinhauer’s narrative again becomes gripping, as he discusses all the ways that books are able to harm and kill people, both in urban myths and in reality. His discussion of books as supposed carriers or germs and disease, which was a major public scare at the turn of the 20th century, feels remarkably prescient. After lounging in obscurity for a century, the books-as-disease-carriers myth has made a triumphant return during the Covid pandemic. At least here in Slovenia, libraries have instituted obligatory waiting periods before a returned book can be loaned out again. They have also mostly removed, to the great annoyance of yours truly, the shelves with free books which were usually on offer in front of the library door.

It turns out that paper mills were also major carriers of death and disease, this time for real. Before the production of paper from wood was invented, the raw material for paper tended to be old rags, or in other words, clothes which were either discarded by their owners or taken from the dead. Wars and epidemics provided fertile harvesting ground for the latter approach, but when piles of rags were carted from plague-ridden cities down to paper mills, the plague-carrying fleas came along for the ride. And just in case some workers survived the infectious illnesses, the survivors were later brought down by lung disease which was endemic in the dust-filled mills. – It just looks like a piece of paper, but several people had to die so that you could hold it in your hand.

Rag paper looks and feels much better than paper made of wood, but its beauty was paid for with the health of paper-mill workers. This makes it particularly ironic that one of the oldest books in my collection is a treatise on lung disease.

This, as I see it, is very close to the core message of Büchergrüfte. By stressing the ways that books killed and were killed for, the ways that they died and cheated death, and how they oftentimes contained death in their midst, Steinhauer imbues these seemingly trivial objects with a gravity that most of us hadn’t been aware of. It is this gravity which draws our gaze, and which, to extend the metaphor, makes it much harder to simply lift the books up and throw them away like common trash. It is the connection with death that, most importantly, commands respect. Steinhauer’s dictum, which I mentioned earlier, could thus be rephrased as follows: “the library of the future will command respect, or it will cease to be.”

Despite its occasional shortcomings, Steinhauer’s volume is, at the end of the day, a very valuable book. He reminds the reader that the Internet might be a great repository of texts, but only in a library can one find, well, books – books as objects that contain not just text, but also a (hi)story which connects the reader to his own past and those of other people who lived and died with this book before him. To conclude with an idea that Steinhauer plays with a little, but doesn’t quite articulate fully: a library is a place where knowledge becomes a physical object. It is a rock which serves to anchor our culture into place; it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. A library is a place that inspires awe at the vastness and variety of our past, and Book Tombs does its part in enhancing this sense of awe.

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A Well-Armed Bibliophile: The Story of Vid Ambrožič

Today’s post is technically a book review, but I’ll be honest and admit right away that I did not read the entire volume in question. The title of the book is A Gendarme among Flowers and Books (Žandar med cvetjem in knjigami), and it’s a loosely organised memoir of Vid Ambrožič, a little-known figure who is usually remembered today as a poet and a “village chronicler.” Well, he also deserves to be remembered as a pretty impressive book collector. I don’t think there has ever been a Slovenian who would remain principally remembered as a book collector, and so it was also with Ambožič. For him, books were never more than a hobby, but it was a hobby that he took seriously and acquired an enviable collection under very difficult circumstances.

His memoirs are written in a light, chatty tone without any pretensions to serious literature, and the book’s cover art leaves much to be desired. However, the stories he has to tell are unexpectedly entertaining. He casts light not only on book collecting in the interwar era, but also on the general fate of books in Slovenia during the first half of the 20th century. Slovenian-speaking booklovers are highly advised to give Ambrožič’s memoir a try; for everyone else, at least there is this blog post.

To the extent that the book has a central theme, it’s Ambrožič’s recollections of serving as a gendarme in interwar Yugoslavia. While he keeps returning to this theme, he never stays put for more than a few pages, and keeps wandering off again to discuss local history, interesting villagers, his amorous adventures, and his interests as a collector. Obviously this last bit was most interesting to me, so I ended up skimming through some of the other passages. Then again, for the standards of book collectors, our protagonist had a fairly interesting life.

He served in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI, and was present at the famous Judenburg uprising in 1918, which he somehow managed to survive. After the war, he became a gendarme in the area east and north of Ljubljana, and the pages are filled with stories of rapists, murderers, and shootouts between criminals and the police. Ambrožič narrates the hunts for his “birds” with remarkable coolness, making it sound almost as if it were a game. During WWII, the Germans fortunately retired him, but he stayed around for a while in order to be able to mediate between the occupiers, locals, and the resistance, and occasionally try to save people listed for execution. He was under suspicion as a potential communist before the war; after the war, he would get in trouble for his opposition to communism. It was a difficult life, but his various collecting hobbies would help keep him afloat.

Ambrožič as a handsome army officer in 1918.

Nowadays, when most people attend university, it’s hard to understand how someone could be as talented as Ambrožič and yet never advance beyond primary education. He learned to read early, and would beg around for money to buy books before he even entered school. Once he was there, he started his own handwritten newspaper (with two subscribers), wrote down poems on the barn walls, and took out books in German with him when he went to graze cows. He became the informal parish librarian, and when the priest was transferred to another parish, he left Ambrožič in charge. The library would later disappear during WWII, along with many others, while Ambrožič’s literary work was soon thrown into the cesspit by his adoptive father. In return, the son would pinch coins from the father’s purse, and when enough money was gathered, he bought a new book of Fran Levstik’s poems which was being advertised in the newspapers. Thus collectors are made.

When time came to send the prodigy off to high school, nobody made any moves, so he stayed behind. Instead, he was sent off to WWI, earned a medal for bravery, and started a career in the police upon his return. Soon after the war, his collecting career also began in earnest. A national exhibition was held in Ljubljana, with a cultural section that included a first edition of the national poet Prešeren’s poems (held today by the Slavic Library in Ljubljana). The edition had been inscribed by Prešeren to his boss’s daughter, and from later times, it bore the ownership markings of the poet Anton Aškerc. Ambrožič, by then already employed as a gendarme, felt the very unseemly urge to grab the book and run. He conquered the urge with the help of a muscular guard, but at that moment he decided to assemble a collection of signed editions and manuscripts himself.

The book that turns honest men into thieves: a first edition of Poezije by France Prešeren.

Most book collectors don’t wear a police uniform when they go around collecting signatures. Ambrožič must have scared quite a few famous writers when he appeared at their doors, but at least they didn’t dare ignore him. When he explained what he came for, they were usually relieved and he quickly got his books inscribed. The poet Oton Župančič used to occasion to tease his son: “if you don’t behave, the gendarme will come back and take you with him!” Ambrožič corresponded with several other more distantly located writers, and duly included their letters into his collection. When the writers in question were already dead, it was more difficult; in some cases he coaxed their manuscript from a surviving relative or friend, in some cases he traded with fellow collectors (for example, for stamps, his other collecting passion). Over time, his manuscript collection grew to include almost every major Slovenian writer of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ambrožič was lucky to have another avenue for book acquisitions. One of his two police stations was in Vevče, and the other was near Količevo, which Slovenians may recognize as the locations of two of the country’s paper mills. The gendarme spent his lunch breaks at the mills, sifting through piles of waste paper for interesting stamps, old documents, but mostly for books and manuscripts. He mentions how he came across the library of Krumperk castle, an imposing Renaissance building northeast of Ljubljana. One day, a row of carts arrived at Količevo mill, carrying books from the castle. The last member of the resident noble family had died, after which the estate liquidators sold the library for scrap. Ambrožič managed to save some especially valuable books, though many were already damaged, having been loaded and unloaded with pitchforks… He laments that since the books are in German, which nobody reads anymore, they won’t outlive him for long. I wonder whether he was proven wrong, and where the books are now.

The paper mill at Vevče in 1933. It is not known whether any of the human figures in the picture represents Ambrožič.

Another way to merge work and leisure was to snoop around for books during patrols. Whoever has read William Blades’ The Enemies of Books can draw a number of parallels between Blades’ experiences in England and those of Ambrožič in Slovenia, many of which fall into the category “ignorant owners.” Fortunately, the patrolman frequently visited people in their homes and thus got a chance to save mistreated old volumes for a tiny price. One time, he saw a group of kids playing around with an old book, which turned out to be a first edition of Bishop Slomšek’s 1842 classic Blaže and Nežica at Sunday School, a highly desired collectors’ item. They let him have the book, since it wasn’t in “our letters” (it was printed in the archaic bohoričica script). Another prized Slomšek first edition, Christian Virginity, was found in the attic of a farmer who didn’t seem to be very interested in virginity.

Bishop Anton Martin Slomšek’s Blaže and Nežica: a rare and coveted book both in Ambrožič’s time and today.

In general, villagers of the patrolman’s native Lower Carniola (Dolenjska) are particularly singled out for their lack of respect for books and education. While many were subscribers of the phenomenally successful Hermagoras Society publishing house, the books themselves were treated badly. When Ambrožič searched for old volumes that his collection was missing, he found plenty of copies, but very few in anything resembling good condition. Writing 90 years later, I can only agree. At its heyday, something like 10% (!) of Slovenians were Hermagoras Society subscribers, but you’d never guess that when searching around for these books.

Not all ways to acquire books are desired by the collectors. When Yugoslavia was occupied in 1941 and divided between Italy, Hungary, and Germany, the largest sustained assault on Slovenian culture in history took place in the German-occupied zone. Hundreds of libraries were purged of Slovenian books, especially in Styria and Carinthia, where the Nazis did not recognize Slovenians as legitimate inhabitants. At first, these books were piled into bonfires, but soon afterwards economic considerations made the Nazis prefer recycling. One day, the paper mill in Količevo received a large shipment of bales of waste paper. One of them broke open during unloading and it turned out that under the genuine trash lay books from Styrian libraries. This time, the paper mill workers showed themselves as friends of the book. Risking arrest, they opened up all the bales, and together with Ambrožič, they saved what they could, including a number of rare volumes.

Ambrožič as a nerdy policeman in 1935.

Of course, Količevo itself also lay in the German-occupied zone. Later in 1941, Ambrožič sensed that things were becoming hot, both for himself and his books. At the time you could still travel to the nearby Italian zone, where the attitude towards Slovenian language was much milder. Ambrožič made a number of trips to Ljubljana, each time carrying a few of his most prized possessions in his pockets, and then deposited these books with different friends, to maximize the odds that at least some of the books would survive. Sometime later, the retired gendarme received permission to move to his native Lower Carniola, which was under Italian occupation. On his way, he stopped in Ljubljana, made a round trip to visit all his friends, and assembled the books that he had deposited. Thus he filled a large suitcase, took the train to Lower Carniola, got off at the local station and walked for another hour and a half to his village, with the huge suitcase in hand. Back pain is an affliction known to many bibliophiles.

For the rest of the occupation, Ambrožič would get to observe the horrors of war as a civilian. As mentioned above, Slovenian castles were already under assault before the war, due to the ignorance and neglect of their owners. In 1941, this simmer turned into a firestorm. Castles were, by definition, fortified buildings positioned in strategic locations in the countryside; hence, Germans, Italians and local Quislings began evicting the owners and repurposing the castles into military outposts. Not wanting to idly stand by, the resistance began a campaign of burning down castles and mansions. Sometimes the buildings in question had already been seized by the occupiers, sometimes they were burned down purely as a preventive measure, in case the Nazis might get ideas.

This time, even Ambrožič couldn’t save anything. He mentions Mirna castle near his village, which was burned down in late 1942. Hearing the news, Ambrožič and his adopted son rushed to what remained of the castle, but there was nothing left to save, and all the books and documents held inside the castle were gone. He mentions that some furniture from the castle could later be seen inside nearby peasant huts. The villages were themselves burned down by the Nazis in an offensive in 1943, so even these remnants probably didn’t survive.

The ruins of Mirna castle in 1947.

Ambrožič wrote down his recollections in the 1960s, when he was an old man and close to death. As it happens, both he and his books managed to survive the war, unlike many other books and people whose stories he narrates. His notes were published posthumously in 1998 by his adopted son Gordan. Incidentally, the latter’s biggest claim to fame is that in 1943, he discovered the body of Lojze Grozde, a young man who was killed by the resistance as a suspected Quisling spy, and who later became the first modern-day Slovenian to be beatified. Grozde was given away when several books published by Catholic Action, a far-right Catholic organization, were found on his body by his interrogators. It wasn’t just people who destroyed books during the war, it could also be the other way around.

Nazi book burnings, the fate of nobles’ libraries during WWII, and the “casual” destruction of books in paper mills during peacetime are all topics I plan to return to in separate blog posts. Ambrožič is a valuable source for all of these since he is never too concerned about what might be relevant to history, but simply writes down memories as they come down to him. A useful lesson from his writings is that acquiring a good collection doesn’t require a lot of money, or indeed hardly any money. On the other hand, it is paramount to be at the right place at the right time. Nowadays, collectors don’t need to hide their books from the Nazis anymore, but treasures can be found at the paper mill just as often as during Ambrožič’s time. You don’t even need to show up in uniform.

Sources:

The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell: A Review

I didn’t expect I would like The Book Thieves so much. I can’t resist books about books, especially if they’re about World War II, but most of the time they present their content in a very dry, academic way (something that I hope my blog is avoiding). By contrast, Rydell blends together history, travelogue, interview and pure bibliophilia into a mixture that keeps you hooked until the end. However, from the beginning, he is faced with a major problem. We are used to thinking of Nazis as destroyers of books, starting with the bonfires of 1933 and culminating in the destruction of several major European libraries, such as the one in Louvain and most of the great libraries of Warsaw. If instead of this one talks about how Nazis stole books for their own collections, wouldn’t that improve the image that most of us already have of them, and appear as a sort of vindication?

Rydell’s answer to this is somewhat disingenuous. Destroying books might be bad, he contends, but using them against their writers and owners is even worse. Of course, he has a point here. In many cases when the Nazis stole books from groups they hated, such as Jews, Slavs and freemasons, the purpose was to create special research libraries; foremost among these was the string of organizations led by chief Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, such as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce) and the Hohe Schule der NSDAP (Advanced School of the NSDAP). Such institutions would serve as an ideological weapon, allowing Germans to know their enemy in order to fight him all the more efficiently. Especially in the case of Jews, these libraries would also serve as a sort of retroactive justification of the Holocaust. After all the Jews would be gone, their books would continue to serve as evidence to future generations of the need for exterminating Jewry, or so at least the Nazis thought. Indeed, when ransacking libraries in occupied countries, a central preoccupation was finding “evidence” for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. For example, when a special commissioner was sent to the library of the masonic lodge in Amsterdam, he was instructed to pay special attention to any documents indicating Jewish influence on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and on the creation of the British secret service, events that Nazi ideologues considered part of the Jewish plot for world domination.

At the same time, isn’t gathering books in order to refute them what most intellectuals do, most of the time? If you want to understand a topic, you need to familiarize yourself with all the viewpoints on it, including the ones you oppose. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco who commented that reading and collecting books which contain the truth is boring, the interesting books are the ones which are full of falsehoods… It wouldn’t harm Rydell’s narrative to simply admit that while burning books is even worse, stealing them is still bad, especially if you kill their owners in the process. Most of the books stolen by the Nazis weren’t really connected with ideology, they were just regular book collections which were taken from owners as the latter were sent to the camps. These books were then sold or turned over to local libraries, where a number of them still are, and in many cases the profits were specifically earmarked to fund the Holocaust. The number of books collected in this way was even advertised publicly as a measure of the Nazis’ respect for popular education, as described in another book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries by Götz Aly.

In occupied Prague, the Nazis looted books from Jews and sent them to libraries back home. The poster boasts: “1.362.945 books have already been gathered. This is enough to fully equip 2.600 libraries.”

The project of returning these books is probably the most interesting of all the stories Rydell presents, and I’m really impressed by the effort German libraries have invested in identifying stolen books, photographing them and setting up databases with thousands of indexed items. (Searching for a stolen book yourself? You can check the database here.) Of all the stories presented, this one is also the most uplifting, as we encounter Holocaust survivors and their descendants around the world who are improbably reunited with their books after many decades of separation.

The other stories are gradually less cheerful. Many of the trails of lost libraries lead to Russia, and most of these trails reach a dead end. During and after the war, the Red Army confiscated millions of books which were considered compensation for books destroyed or looted by the Nazis after their invasion of the USSR. I don’t understand this at all: why would they want to fill Soviet libraries with books in German, many of which were highly foreign to the Soviet worldview, if not literally Nazi? Apparently, most local librarians didn’t understand it either. The majority of these books ended up rotting in huge warehouses or were discarded and pulped after it turned out that nobody in town was interested in reading German folk songs or guides to Frankfurt. Even when the books acquired were in Russian, they didn’t necessarily fare any better. After the Turgenev library of Paris, founded and run by Russian émigrés, was removed by the Nazis in 1940, it eventually found itself in the USSR after the war. Even though most of the books were in Russian and politically unproblematic, they were put into storage at a military base where they were eventually almost all burned for heating. Many others of these so-called “trophy” books are still scattered around the former Soviet Union, but locating them is difficult and their return is unlikely.

As it goes on, the book becomes increasingly depressing, since it is hard to discuss the topic of books separate from the wider context of the Holocaust. Of the two major Jewish libraries in Rome, one was mostly returned after the war, while the other one disappeared without a trace. So did most of its readers, who were rounded up in 1943 and sent to the camps after having been promised freedom in exchange for 50 kilograms of gold, which they duly gathered and handed over. While the stolen books from Rome at least had somewhere to return to after the war, this wasn’t the case with the Jewish community in Vilnius. Survivors coming back to the newly-Lithuanian town would discover that the Soviet occupiers had little use for Yiddish books, and intended to pulp even the small number of books that had survived until 1944. In any case, the number of surviving Jews was very low and most of them made off to other countries as soon as they could. As a result, the remainders of the pre-war Jewish libraries of Vilnius are now mostly located abroad.

A pile of books looted by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in Riga, Latvia, in 1943.

Lastly comes the most depressing of these stories, from Salonika in Greece, where Nazis and Greeks together obliterated almost every trace of Jewish presence, down to bulldozing the cemetery. Nowadays it takes an archaeologist to recognize traces of what used to be one of the largest Jewish communities in the world just a century ago. Here, Rydell wanders somewhat off topic, as only a small part of the chapter is actually spent discussing books, but I can’t blame him since Salonika is probably the least-known of all the Jewish pre-war cultural centres, and deserves more publicity.

This still leaves out several countries which Rydell does not mention at all, among them Yugoslavia. Bosnia in particular had a notable Jewish community, and it would be interesting to know what happened to their books and where they ended up. I plan to get around to this on the blog, once I’ve collected enough material. If the review concludes with wishing that the book had been longer, this is very faint criticism indeed.

At the end of the day, the main reason why I liked The Book Thieves so much is that Rydell displays a genuine love of old books. He doesn’t care just for incunables and rare collectors’ objects, but also run-of-the-mill books, 19th century books on law and economics and textbooks which, apart from the fact that they were stolen from their owners, are otherwise completely unremarkable. On occasion this love even appears hopelessly naive. At the same time that German public libraries are restituting thousands of pre-WWII books to their owners, many millions of similar books are being weeded and discarded by libraries all over Europe, in some cases cut apart in order to be digitized and the originals discarded, and in other cases just sent to the paper mills directly, on account of their “outdatedness” and libraries’ “lack of space”. I was sometimes surprised while reading The Book Thieves that so many of these books had survived on the shelves long enough to await the beginning of the restitution process.

Of course, even if Rydell is aware of these modern book purges, he can’t afford to discuss them in the book, or else it would appear that Nazi librarians were actually better than their modern-day counterparts. Yet despite this noble lie, I have some hope that by pretending society already cares about old books, The Book Thieves might actually get people to care about them more. The main lesson of these three hundred pages is that books can be valuable even if their market price isn’t very high, what makes them valuable is the people and places they used to belong to, and the long path they have travelled to reach the present day. Such a sentiment is very close to the philosophy behind this blog.

Sources:

  • Aly, Götz. “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.” New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007.
  • Rydell, Anders. “The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance.” New York: Penguin Books, 2015.