“Book Collecting in Slovenia:” My Lecture for the Florida Bibliophile Society

Your blogger has always preferred the written word to the spoken one: as the Latins used to say, verba volant, scripta manent. I was never tempted to make videos or podcasts for The Fate of Books, and even if I wanted to produce them, they probably wouldn’t be very good. I’m not that talented at multimedia. Several people have told me I’m good at writing, though. And what better way there is to celebrate books and the written word than to write about them.

Nonetheless, I also enjoy talking about books. Last autumn, fellow blogger Jerry Morris from the Florida Bibliophile Society (FBS) invited me to talk about books as a guest speaker at their society meeting, which was scheduled for March 20, 2022. Most of their speakers are local (especially before Covid, when the meetings would be held in person), but the pandemic has brought about the shift to Zoom and with it, exotic guests like myself. The FBS leadership told me I was welcome to speak about anything, as long as it had to do with books and book collecting in Slovenia.

My lecture ended up consisting of three parts. The first one was a brief outline of the history of Slovenian language and literature – a soporific topic, but I tried to make it less so by focusing on the funny and quirky episodes of our story. In the second part, I then talked about what it’s like to collect books in a small place like Slovenia, and how I think it compares to the experience of an American collector.

In the third part, I discussed Slovene American publishing, focusing on some items from my own collection. Not only is this a topic I felt American listeners would be interested in, it’s also very close to the subject matter of my blog. Fewer and fewer descendants of Slovenian immigrants to the USA still speak the language, which means that interest in Slovenian books is declining as well. Once nobody in the neighborhood can read a certain book anymore and no second hand store is interested in taking it, it’s not hard to guess the most likely fate of that book. So, as I told my listeners last month – if anyone across the pond encounters a pile of old Slovenian books and doesn’t know what to do with them, you’re more than welcome to contact me.

One of the cutest pieces from my collection is this pocket dictionary, one of the first Slovenian-English dictionaries ever published. Not only is it old and very rare, it’s also comically bad, sometimes approaching English as She Is Spoke levels of badness.

The recording of the lecture has now been made available online here. Check it out yourself for a rare opportunity to see how your blogger looks and sounds like. And thanks again to the FBS team for inviting me over!

Update: I learned recently that Jerry Morris, who had invited me to hold the lecture and who chaired the actual Zoom session, passed away on April 3 – two weeks after I spoke at the FBS meeting and just one day after I brought out the above post. Jerry was not only a passionate collector, he was also the most prolific blogger I knew in this niche area of ours, having founded and run 7 different book-collecting blogs over the course of more than a decade. His in-depth descriptions, adorned with numerous photos, of the gems of his collection easily put my own hastily written blog posts to shame.

When I discussed the topic of my lecture with Jerry in advance, I raised doubts whether an American audience would care much about the minutiae of Slovenian collecting. He replied that I shouldn’t fret about it: book collecting was an international language. From now on, whenever someone asks me about the usefulness of collecting foreign-language books, or operating a blog in English, I will happily retort with Jerry’s phrase.

I considered writing an obituary, but I felt it would be presumptuous to write about someone I had only met online on a few occasions, and about whom I honestly didn’t know that much. Instead, I can direct my readers to the obituary posted at Fine Books & Collections, one of the world’s largest news sites about rare books and book collecting.

Jerry in his natural element. I hope the big library in the sky can compare with the impressive one he had built for himself over the decades.

Update #2: The new issue of the FBS newsletter has just come out. Inside is another obituary of Jerry Morris, as well as a detailed, illustrated summary of my lecture. Thanks to Gary Simons, who took the time to convert my 45-minute rambling into a highly readable article!

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.

To Break a Book: Bibliophiles as Book Enemies

On Facebook, I recently came across a book that I never expected to see for sale outside of an auction or a fancy rare-book dealer. The book in question was one of the four volumes of the first edition of The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola, printed in 1689. The book’s author, Janez Vajkard (German spelling: Johann Weikhart) Valvasor, used to gaze at Slovenians from the 20-tolar banknote; nowadays we have the euro, but a bunch of places across Slovenia, ranging from libraries to restaurants and mountain cabins, continue to carry his name. It makes sense: Glory is an unprecedented magnum opus that summarized just about everything there was to know about the Slovenian heartland province of Carniola. A full set of the recent Slovenian translation will cost you several thousand euros, as will a well-preserved set of the 19th-century reprint. However, the seller of this first-edition volume admitted quite candidly that he wasn’t sure if his book was worth anything at all.

Where’s the catch? It’s true that the binding was almost gone, but that’s what we have bookbinders for. Even a rebound copy of a rare book can still be worth a lot of money. The real problem was that the book was extremely incomplete. Not only were all the fold-out panoramas and maps missing from it, but a bunch of pages with text were gone as well, so that you couldn’t even really call it a reading copy anymore. The title page was present, and you could still use the book to boast that you have a Valvasor first edition at home. However, for most bibliophiles, having such a miserable gutted volume on the shelf would simply be…sad.

Even at this poor level of preservation, the title page of Valvasor’s book looks fairly impressive.

So, how did this happen? Sometimes kids will play around with books and cut interesting pictures from them, or very unscrupulous adults will cut an entire page out to save time on making notes. In this case, though, there is no need for such an implausible explanation. The answer is quite simple: somebody cut out all the maps and the pages with illustrations in order to sell them separately to collectors. Even though the remaining book is almost worthless, selling the illustrations separately probably brought in more money than a complete book would have fetched. In most cases, destroying books is obviously a waste of money, but in this particular case, book destruction is literally a for-profit activity.

Most people who haven’t ventured far into book collecting, or who focus on modern editions, are barely aware that antiquarian bookstores often offer a selection of old maps apart from the books themselves. Nowadays, maps tend to be printed as separate objects, if they’re printed on paper at all. During the 20th century, if large maps or similar illustrations were included in books, they were usually tucked in at the back and could be removed without damaging the book itself. By contrast, early modern books usually had their maps bound inside, and it was less common for a map to be printed and sold separately. This means that most old prints which you see at rare book stores had once been cut out of a rare book.

Returning to the example of Valvasor, you can find a bunch of ads for his works online. Mostly, these aren’t ads for entire books, but for individual pages from them. This is quite logical: a single book has hundreds of illustrations, and when somebody cuts a book up, this will results in hundreds of online listings. So the question now is, who is buying all this? Do people genuinely think that these images were originally printed separately? Or, more likely, do they push moral quandaries aside when presented with the opportunity to own a (literal) fragment of history for a very accessible price?

Valvasor’s panorama of Ljubljana is especially sought after, since it’s by far the most detailed depiction of the town from before the 1800s.

1. The Arguments

The practice of cutting out illustrations from old volumes is called “breaking up” books, and it’s probably clear by now just how much I am against it. However, let’s start with the arguments in favour of this practice. Probably the main argument is that it allows ordinary people to own a piece of history that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. An entire Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the world’s most famous incunabula, costs as much as a small apartment. A single page from the book, however, might be had for 30 euros. Wouldn’t it be something to get a 15th century print under your Christmas tree?

To this, my answer is: there are already perfectly enough old books for everyone out there! (Even if you’re not rich!) Assuming you merely wish to own a historical artefact, you can easily find books from the early 1800s for a few euros apiece, or a 17th century book (without missing pages, of course) for perhaps 50 euros. Even incunabula aren’t that expensive, with some of them being sold for less than 1000 euros. People overestimate how expensive old books are. Yes, collecting Renaissance-era books is not cheap, because given that you are a collector, you will presumably want to buy more than just a couple of them. However, there are relatively few people out there who couldn’t afford to buy even a single rare book at some point in their life, if they wanted to.

(Also, there are already tons of broken-up books around the world. Even if you specifically want to own an image that used to be part of an old book, there is no need to continue breaking up books for this.)

The other argument is that if a book is already in poor condition, breaking it up can improve the condition of its parts. Imagine you have a book which is for some reason already missing a few maps, or perhaps the last page. You can either have an obviously incomplete copy, or break it up and thus acquire several “complete” maps and illustrations.  

My answer to this is that the less a book is mutilated, the easier it is to find the missing parts and fix it. In this sense, think of a book as the equivalent of a vintage car. Assuming a book is not very rare, it’s still plausible to hope to find one missing part, but once you’re lost 100 small parts, you’re increased the entropy so much that it’s just not possible anymore to bring them all back together in anyone’s lifetime. And if a book is very rare to begin with, then you definitely shouldn’t be cutting it up and scattering the parts against the winds!

Indeed, my main argument is that breaking up books irretrievably destroys their historical meaning and context. A rare book is an object with a story and a provenance; almost every book from before the 18th century has a signature somewhere, which can often be traced to some historical personality. There are also marginalia, notes, stamps from long-gone libraries, and sometimes entire essays about someone’s life, written at the back of a book, from back when paper was expensive and hard to come by. An illustration that is removed from such a book will have its history erased, becoming just another identical copy on the market. Technically, nothing is destroyed by cutting up a book into pieces, but the rump that stays behind will be shunned by most collectors, and is at considerable risk of eventually landing in the trash.

Anyway, all of these arguments were more or less based on the assumption that the books in question are not so well preserved, and not so very rare, either. Oftentimes, the people who break up books cannot even cling to such flimsy excuses.

2. Book Breaking in Practice

In William Blades’ classic work The Enemies of Books, he lists the eponymous enemies in order from least to most conscious of what they are doing. We begin with fire and water, move on to worms, then rats, little children, and up to ignorant owners. Close to the end of the list are bookbinders – never missing a chance to trim the margins of a rare book – and after them come…collectors. Apparently, each booklover has their own interpretation of what it means to love books, and in some cases, the love in question might be a very deadly one.

The patron saint of perverted booklovers is John Bagford, an 18th-century antiquarian who set it upon himself to compile a history of printing. With this in mind, he travelled across Britain, visiting libraries and bringing home a few title pages of old books from each visit, having torn them out as souvenirs. He then glued these pages into special scrapbooks, which might have served a modest educational purpose back when it wasn’t yet possible to photograph books or print reproductions from them. Nowadays, however, the scrapbooks merely serve as a testament to the author’s barbarity. I have no idea how Bagford pulled this off, given that even then, I imagine librarians weren’t exactly indifferent to people tearing out pages from library books. Perhaps Bagford was helped in his enterprise by having been one of the three founding members of the Society of Antiquaries. I imagine him as the Society’s equivalent of Salazar Slytherin – one whose dark influence still continues today.

There are no surviving full copies left of the tenth edition of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, but there remains a piece of a title page, which John Bagford cut out and pasted into one of his scrapbooks. Er…thanks?

If William Blades’ was the Victorian era’s foremost advocate of the book, this torch has now passed to Nicholas Basbanes. Basbanes is known primarily as a chronicler of the world of book auctions and loaded collectors, which he has described in A Gentle Madness. However, he is a passionate defender of both the valuable and the more “plebeian” sort of old books against all kinds of enemies. In his immensely readable book A Splendor of Letters, he raises his voice against modern-day biblioclasts, and so it’s from Basbanes’ book that I have lifted two stories of egregious abuses.

During his book-cutting spree, John Bagford seems to have been fairly indiscriminate in choice of victims. The latter-day Bagfords, by contrast, all seem to be after the same prey. A highly desired prey are the Birds of America, the ornithologist J. J. Audobon’s 1830s magnum opus which is considered to be one of the most beautiful books of all time. It’s also one of the most valuable, but that doesn’t prevent people from making even more money by breaking the book up. In the early 2000s, an intact four-volume set would cost you nearly 10 million dollars, while each of the 435 individual plates went for $3,000 to $150,000 – adding up to more than 10 million, of course.

Basbanes also presents some even more shocking numbers. At the time of his writing, about 125 of the original 200 sets were known to be preserved intact. This suggests that around 75 sets had already been broken up (books this valuable will seldom just disappear from the record). However, only around 15 complete copies were known to reside outside of institutions at that time. Assuming that libraries don’t cut up their books, this would imply that 4 out of 5 copies outside of an institution had already been broken up! You’d think a book as elite as Birds of America would be unlikely to ever come to grief – in reality, a Bible is safer at a Satanist meeting than Audobon’s book is in the hands of a book dealer.

There are no elephants in Birds of America, but the format of the book isn’t called “elephant folio” for nothing.

At least there will always be a few complete copies of Birds of America somewhere, residing in a library if perhaps not with a private collector. The same cannot be said anymore for the Shahnameh, one of the most beautiful Persian manuscripts of all time. The “Book of Kings” was written by the poet Ferdowsi in the 10th century and copied in several lavish manuscripts before printing (re)arrived to Persia in the 17th century. Perhaps the most famous is the volume produced in the 1500s for king Tahmāsp I, which is nowadays known as the “Houghton Shahnameh.” Basbanes compares this unfortunate moniker to the Parthenon marbles having been named after lord Elgin, who had them dismantled and shipped them off to Britain. Perhaps it would be a better comparison to say that calling it the “Houghton Shahnameh” is kind of like if we referred to the former Temple of Arthemis at Ephesus as “Herostratus’ Temple.”

As it happens, Houghton was the last in a long line of illustrious owners of the Shahnameh. He acquired the book in 1959, by which time his reputation as a rich collector and donator to major institutions had already been established. He bought the Shahnameh at an auction and loaned it out to Harvard University, with the understanding that their library would produce a facsimile edition, and with the unspoken implication that Houghton might end up turning the loan into a donation.

What happened next is rather confusing. Apparently, Harvard made very little progress with the facsimile edition, and in the meantime the IRS began to investigate Houghton’s practise of donating rare books to major libraries – since this resulted in tax breaks, and the amount of tax reduction was usually based on Houghton’s own generous valuation of the donated books, his donations tended to effect his overall financial status quite favourably. Frustrated with both of these setbacks, Houghton withdrew the Shahnameh from Harvard and did what Basbanes interprets as a “let me show you what my books are really worth” gesture: he broke it up into individual plates and first donated part of them to the New York Metropolitan Museum. The museum had not expected this at all, so regardless of what they might have thought about Houghton’s decision, they didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.

At that point, there was still hope that the leaves of the Shahnameh might remain together, but Houghton quickly dashed these hopes by putting a few of the leaves up for auction. They fetched very high prices, which Houghton gladly used as a retroactive justification of the tax break he had got for the donation to the Met. Finally, the remaining plates were offered to the new Iranian Islamic government, which was eager to have at least part of a national treasure repatriated, and gladly traded them for a piece of modern art which used to belong to the recently deposed Shah.

Sometime after all of this transpired, Harvard finally shook itself out of its slumber and brought out a luxurious facsimile edition of the “Houghton Shahnameh.” By then, the facsimile was uniquely valuable, since it represented a book which did not exist anymore, at least not as a single object. In order not to anger their almost-donator, the compilers of the introduction carefully sidestepped the issue of the book’s destruction. Despite its technical proficiency and detailed scholarship, this gives the book a rather Soviet tinge – one of those self-censored texts that only make sense if one reads them between the lines.

Priced at $2000 (in 1981 dollars!), the facsimile edition of “The Houghton Shahnameh” was almost as inaccesible as the original.

In the first story I’ve presented, individual leaves were removed from books; in the second story, dozens of leaves at once; in the third one, all the leaves. The logical conclusion would be to go even further and cut up even individual leaves into pieces. Needless to say, this too has been done. A British handbag manufacturer offers special, £2500-apiece products which distinguish themselves from ordinary handbags by containing a small piece of an original letter by Charles Dickens. I’ve heard of some crazy shit, but this one left even me stunned.

In this case, nobody can even pretend anymore that there is some kind of interest to collectors being served. The closest analogy I can think of are the relics of saints that were such a prominent feature of medieval Catholicism. The bones of a saint were broken up and scattered across European churches to help the saints with interceding in their supplicants’ lives. What is Dickens protecting his wearers against? Writer’s block?

At least the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations was a peaceful soul and probably wouldn’t bother to haunt whoever happens to wear the remains of his manuscripts. The same company also produces handbags containing vandalized bits of handwriting by Queen Victoria and by King Frederick William III of Prussia, among others. As I recall, Prussian monarchs were never exactly famous for their ability to remain indifferent to insults…

Anyway, whoever ends up compiling the next edition of Dickens’ collected works might encounter some awkward moments when they’ll have to update the present locations of our writer’s manuscripts. We’re all used to reading that a certain historically important document was “lost during WWII” or “destroyed in a fire,” but how exactly do you phrase that a manuscript has been cut up and turned into handbags?

Original handwriting by Charles Dickens from the year 1857“…the way they phrased it, it almost sounds like Dickens scribbled a few words onto a piece of paper specifically for this handbag. I wonder if the average buyer thinks this as well?

***

Given how few people seem to be opposed to “book art,” which involves cutting up perfectly good old books and turning them into collages and statues (compared to which John Bagford’s title-page-scrapbooks seem positively benign), I have little hope that book-breaking will become any less popular during our lifetimes. If anything, it might become even commoner. Increasingly few people seem to be interested in collecting books, just as fewer and fewer still read them (at least on paper); on the other hand, the market for art doesn’t seem to be in any danger of decline. The combination of these two trends might lead increasingly more people to “liberate” works of art from their book-prison, hang them up on a wall, and discard the useless books themselves…

For more conscientious booklovers, the question remains, what to do with the cut-outs already in our possession? This is the same problem faced by collectors of archaeological material: you can have it displayed in your living room, but then you need to constantly explain that no, these swords weren’t dug up illegally, or looted from some museum, they had been in your family for generations… Anyway, my suggestion is to keep displaying these maps and foldouts (if perhaps in some corner which encounters fewer visitors). After all, you’re honouring the illustrators, mapmakers, and printers, not the people who cut these books up. At the same time, however, do exercise caution when buying cut-out material. Make sure not to feed the wolves.

Sources:

The Most Amazing Books People Found in a Dumpster

I spent a long time thinking about whether I really wanted to write this post. A very common misconception about old books is that you can divide them up into two categories: 1) rare and valuable books, and 2) everything else. The first category needs to be given special attention, preserved, and protected; the second category is literally trash. You often encounter this dichotomy in online discussions of old books, and even many of the professionals embrace it uncritically. To give an example, there is an apparently popular TV show about searching for antiques at yard sales, which regularly regales its viewers with a quiz titled “Dumpster or No Dumpster;” the implication being, of course, that if a certain item isn’t fit for Sotheby’s, it can safely be thrown away.

I worried that by focusing on a select few items that somebody had trashed and that turned out to be valuable, I would just be feeding this misconception. If everyone is aware that a tiny percentage of old books can be very valuable, this might get people to research their books more carefully before trashing them. However, once the appraisers predictably discover that 99% of their books have little value, they will nonetheless proceed to throw these books out. While better than nothing, this is not exactly a huge improvement of the status quo.

Pictured: The 99%.

If my readers forgive me for stating the moral of this post in advance, I would like the post to instead help inculcate a deep agnosticism with respect to second-hand books. Yes, some items are obviously very valuable, but even for most books that seem unimpressive at first glance, there is a collector somewhere who is searching for this exact copy. Even when the book itself is common, the signature, library stamp, marginalia, or merely the level of preservation can make it very rare or unique, and even if nobody is interested in it now, somebody might covet this exact copy 50 years from now. Hence, please be nice, help preserve old books even if AbeBooks says they aren’t worth much, and don’t be the person whom future collectors will curse. Well, now that I’ve stated it, without further ado:

1. Tartars in the Library

To get an overview of the insane stuff that can be found among the trash in rich countries, there is probably no better resource than Garbage Finds. This Montreal-based blogger earns a living from the stuff he finds in his city’s trash cans, with the most interesting pieces being posted online. From the dumpsters, he regularly hauls jewellery, gold and silver items, antiques, valuable art, as well as bags of (still valid) coins and rolls of (still valid) banknotes. There doesn’t seem to be a single item out there that would be too valuable for people to throw into the garbage. And while one could use this as an excuse to sneer at Canadians, there is no particular reason to expect Americans, Germans or Japanese to behave much differently.

Our blogger regularly finds books as well, though only the most impressive items make it into his posts. Perhaps the record-holder here is a book he casually mentions in one of the posts, tucked between a spate of other antiques he found in a single dumpster, among them pre-Columbian pottery and a number of 19th century photographs and art. The author of the post is no book expert, so he guessed that the volume might be from the late 19th century as well, but his commentariat quickly set him straight and explained that the year 1610, printed on the last page, is very likely genuine.

It’s hard to be certain based on the pictures that were included into the post, but it seems that the leather-bound volume found in a Montreal dumpster includes at least two separate works which were bound together not long after being printed. The first is a historical work printed in 1610 and dedicated to the elector John George I of Saxony. Since the title page is missing, so is the title, but the last page says that the book was printed in Leipzig by the printer Henning Grosse Jr.

The second book was printed at the same location in 1611, and this time the title page is present. The book is a German adaptation of the travels of Marco Polo, or Chorographia Tartariae, as the book’s Latin name is spelled. At least one map is present, depicting the island of Rhodes, which definitely increases the value of the book. Of special interest to me, however, is the dedication immediately after the title page. Even though the work was printed in Saxony, it is dedicated to Hans Jakob Khisl and Karl Khisl, two members of a Carniolan noble family that was of paramount importance for Slovenian history.

Left: title page of Chorographia Tartariae. Right: coat of arms of the Khisl family and the dedication to Hans Jakob and Karl Khisl.

The Khisls gave their name to Khislstein castle in the centre of Kranj, and they played a major part in the Reformation movement in Slovenia, during which time we got our first printed books. Of interest to book history, they also opened the first Slovenian paper mill at Fužine near Ljubljana in 1579. Next to the former mill, there still stands a castle which used to belong to the Khisls and now houses the Museum of Architecture and Design. I regularly pass by the castle on my strolls down the Ljubljanica River. Fortunately, the castle is too big to fit into a dumpster.

The entrance to Fužine castle. Above the portal is the Khisls’ coat of arms.

The reason why the book was dedicated to the Khisls is that the translator got to know them well during his career. Hieronymus Megiser was born in Swabia and studied at Tübingen, but he spent a big part of his life in Carniola and Carinthia, where he became well acquainted with the Slovenian language. He put this knowledge to good use and brought out the first Slovenian dictionary of all time – more precisely, a huge German-Latin-Slovenian-Italian dictionary – in 1592. Apart from Slavic cultures, he was also interested in lands further east, which led him to compile the first ever Turkish grammar in German. It’s thus no surprise that he was also the first person to translate Marco Polo into German – in the 1611 volume that ultimately ended up in a dumpster.

Megiser look as angry as you’d expect from someone whose books are getting trashed.

In the end, our blogger sold the book to a friend-of-the-blog for 30 dollars, which is a very modest sum even considering the missing pages. However, the whole point of my writing is that when looking at old books, one shouldn’t focus on their monetary worth. Hence, if the book arrived into good hands, then the founder of Garbage Finds did the right thing. I checked online and there doesn’t seem to be a copy of this edition of Marco Polo in any Slovenian library, despite the Megiser-Khisl connection. I know that our National Library looks out for interesting Slovenian books being offered by foreign booksellers, and occasionally buys them for its collection. Maybe it would be a better idea to establish relations with foreign dumpster divers and buy interesting books from them. A lot more could be acquired that way, and for much less money, too.

This particular example bothers me even more than all the others below, and the reason isn’t just the book’s historical importance or its Slovenian connection. I guess the main reason is that (ironically?) I’m kind of thinking like a librarian. Preserving old books isn’t a passive process that just happens, you need to actively make it happen by safeguarding the books from damp and insects and dirt and little children, year after year after year… When you look at a book that’s 400 years old, what you’re looking at is the effort of over a dozen generations to preserve the book against an onslaught of calamities that could easily turn a volume into dust in a matter of days. That alone should give every booklover pause when handling a truly old item. But at the end of all these centuries, some idiot had to come along and chuck the book into the trash. If you’re reading this, f**k you.

2. 1812 All Over Again

There are two factors which make the following story unique: 1) the absurd importance of the salvaged books and 2) the fact that one of the first places where it was announced was Reddit. Just like electronic media have slowly supplanted printed ones as the primary means of record-keeping of our age, they are in turn being replaced by social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit. Perhaps 22nd century historians will have special citation styles for Tweets and Facebook posts, just like we now have special styles for journal articles and conference abstracts.

Back to the story. It doesn’t say whether Max Brown often dumpster-dives for antiques, but at least on one occasion in 2014, he was distracted by a bunch of old cassettes lying inside a dumpster near his California home. Thank God for those cassettes – under them turned out to lie a bunch of old books. Brown pulled out a handful of these, but then, according to the story, it started to rain, so he packed up what he could – 15 books altogether – and headed home.

Once he was home, he took a better look at these books and found out that they were in fact really old, dating to the 18th century and even earlier. What especially caught his attention, though, was an inscription in one of the books, “From the Library of Thomas Jefferson.” I don’t know what went through his head at that moment, but my guess is that it was a feeling not unlike drunkenness. Each collector dreams of such moments, and Brown, if not perhaps a collector, found his.

Left: the inscription on the book’s inner flyleaf. Right: title page of the book in question, On Wisdom by Pierre Charron.

He contacted antiquarian booksellers, who at first told him that the inscriptions connecting the books to Jefferson were not authentic. Not entirely convinced, Brown did some additional research of his own, tracing down the owners of Jefferson’s books after the death of their famous owner. Jefferson, an inveterate collector of books from an early age, had offered his library to the US Congress after the original Library of Congress was burned down during the War of 1812. After some wrangling and debate, Jefferson’s offer was accepted. However, after the transaction was finalized and the books were transferred in 1815, Jefferson’s collecting did not grind to a halt, so he continued to acquire new books for himself until his death in 1826.

This second library of Thomas Jefferson was dispersed after his death. Brown checked out the 19th century sales catalogues of Jefferson’s books and found the same titles that he had recovered from the dumpster. He sought a second opinion about the books’ provenance, and this time, he was told that the inscriptions were genuine. In the meantime, however, Brown had been strapped for cash, so he sold most of the books for 8,000 dollars; not a small sum, but probably only a fraction of what the books would have fetched at a major auction.

Jefferson as a pensioner in 1821. He probably never had more time to read in his life – the biggest distraction were all the tourists who had already started flocking to his Monticello home.

The story, as Brown and the journalists who interviewed him eventually pieced it together, is as follows: one part of Jefferson’s library ended up in the possession of the Kellogg family soon after Jefferson’s death. The ownership of these books can then ultimately be traced down to a descendant of the family by the name of Violet Cherry, who died in 1976. After that, the trail officially goes cold, but it seems that Brown also figured out who the subsequent owners were. Unfortunately, he isn’t sharing names. All he divulges is that they are themselves descendants of Ms Cherry, that they threw the books away during a remodelling in 2014, and that, extremely ironically, they are historians by profession. I hope he changes his mind and makes their names public one day. The very least these people deserve is a proper public shaming.

As the story is presented online, it still leaves a few unanswered questions. How is it possible to have such a priceless book collection at home and not know it? If I had Thomas Jefferson’s books in my collection, there’s no way my kids, or anyone else I know for that matter, would be able to not be aware of this. The descendants of Ms Cherry might have hated books, but it’s really hard to imagine that someone would prefer to throw these books away than to exchange them for a Mercedes.

Also, how many books did Brown leave behind him in the dumpster? It’s possible that the other books inside were not from Jefferson’s library (he also salvaged some old photograph albums of the Kelloggs), but it’s also possible that the story is ultimately a very tragic one. I can’t really understand how one could find such beautiful books and then be put off from rescuing them by the rain (even if one didn’t yet know whom exactly these 18th century volumes belonged to), but let’s give Brown a break here. I’m sure he has had enough moments of remorse as it is, and the next time he comes across a pile of discarded old books, he’ll know what to do.

Perhaps the saddest part is that the story was only reported by a handful of regional media. If these same books were stolen from a library or an auction house, I’m sure that the story would hit the headlines the next morning, and scores of policemen would be assigned to the case.  When reporting about major book thefts, journalists often stress that the perpetrators had assaulted our common cultural heritage, and should consequently be given be given exemplary, harsh punishments. But when books of equal value are literally destroyed, nothing happens. Whoever threw these into the trash does not need to fear any sanctions.

3. What does Montaigne know?

Most stories about amazing garbage finds never become public, so the only way to come across them is by word of mouth. I can only guess at what the most valuable thing is that anyone ever found in the trash. We know about this present story only because the finder told it to his friend, a blogger, who in turn wrote a post about it, titled “What Can Be Found in the New York Trash.”

Both the blogger and his friend are Russians living in New York. One day, the friend was going from his house to the store and passed by a large open dumpster which was evidently filled with the contents of someone’s apartment, covered with a layer of snow. There was plenty of furniture and clothes, but also a lot of books, many of them quite old. The passer-by filled a box with books and other items that grabbed his attention, and once he was home, he had a better look at them.

One of the books was an edition of Montaigne’s Essays, printed in 1957 and illustrated by the “great American artist” Salvador Dali. What’s more, the book was a bibliophile edition, produced in 1000 numbered copies that were signed by the illustrator. Even though the outside of the book was scratched, presumably a consequence of having lain in the dumpster, the inside seemed to be very well preserved. When copies of the same edition reach the market, they tend to sell for 1000-2000 dollars, though this one might fetch a bit less due to its imperfect condition.

The inside of Dali’s ilustrated version of Montaigne’s Essays.

Our blogger heard about the amazing find from his friend that same day, and rushed to the dumpster to see for himself what lay inside. He took a number of photos, in which we can see the gigantic dumpster in question, about as long as two of the cars parked next to it. The blogger also took plenty of photos of the finds that he himself brought home, which included paintings, vintage clothes, different paper ephemera, as well as a number of books. He didn’t find anything as valuable as Montaigne’s Essays, but he did salvage several well-preserved turn-of-the-century children’s books. It’s unlikely that our blogger, or anyone else for that matter, managed to get to the bottom of the dumpster and inspect all of its contents. Hence, it’s hard to say whether Dali’s book was indeed the most valuable object to have lain inside.

The dumpster from which Dali’s Montaigne was rescued.

For the first two stories I presented above, we don’t know what the dumpsters in question looked like, or how many people passed by them. In this case, however, we can see clearly from the photos that the dumpster was located at the side of a main street, that plenty of cars and people passed by, and that any pedestrian could see that the container was filled with books. Judging by the layer of snow on top of the books, it also seems that they were left standing inside for quite some time. If a few random people throw valuable books into the trash, this can be shrugged off as an aberration, but when hundreds of passers-by do nothing about it, then that is worrisome. If it weren’t for two Russian immigrants, nothing would remain of the cultural heritage packed within this NY dumpster.

4. Accio Rare Book!

The previous three stories suggest that if a book is old(ish), it might also be valuable. This is not a necessary condition, though, and dumpsters can also yield valuable books of a more recent date. In this last story, a book that would at first glance appear to be the most common item in the world turned out to be as rare and as precious as very few other bibliophile gems. The story also illustrates that it’s not just dumpsters in front of mansions that one should be attentive to.

The book in question is a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which came out in 1997 in a tiny print run of 500 copies, around 300 of which were bought up by libraries. Given what a success Harry Potter became afterwards, this is probably the most sought-after modern first edition of all, with even tattered library copies fetching significant sums. It’s great that libraries support fledgling young authors by buying up their books, but it would be even better if these books weren’t ultimately trashed.

This one was thrown out, along with a few other (less rare) Harry Potter first editions, by a school in Buckinghamshire, which unfortunately remains unnamed, in 2008. The occasion for the trashing was an incoming visit by Ofsted, the school-inspection body of the UK Department of Education. Apparently, the school wanted its library to look pristine for the inspection, and plenty of other items had found themselves in the dumpster. If Ofsted has a policy that libraries aren’t allowed to carry rare and valuable books, then I hope the inspectors never find their way to Oxbridge colleges…

The battered first edition of Harry Potter recovered from the trash (center), along with two other early Harry Potter editions.

The Harry Potter books were taken by a then-teacher at the school, who apparently had to fish them out of the dumpster. Sometimes libraries will at least offer these sort of discarded books to employees before trashing them, but apparently this institution has an uncompromising policy of destruction. As it happens, the teacher brought all of these books home, but at first didn’t consider that they might have any particular value – she simply wanted to have them around for her children and grandchildren to read.

About eight years later, her son noticed that the books, especially the first edition of Philosopher’s Stone, might indeed be valuable. He offered them around to antiquarian sellers, who offered to buy the books on the spot for several thousand pounds, but he figured that the books’ real value might indeed be much higher, and resisted the temptation. Finally, he contacted the Hansons’ Auctioneers auction house, where Philosopher’s Stone went up for auction in 2020 and reached the sum of £33,000, despite being an ex-library copy with significant damage to the spine.

The saddest part of this particular story is probably that when the unnamed teacher was interviewed about her finds, she sounded almost apologetic for having rescued the books from the trash. She explained to the journalist that “it just seemed awful to throw them away” and that taking them home for her grandchildren was “better than seeing them go to waste.” Perhaps the biggest problem, when it comes to books in the trash, is that people are so squeamish about dumpster diving. Even the few who salvage books from trash bags often later feel the need to ask forgiveness for their good deeds.

***

When Rebecca Rego Barry wrote her Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, she included 52 stories into the volume, gathered from fellow collectors and book dealers whom she had gotten to know over the years. Of all these stories, however, only one involves a book that was literally found in the trash. Even then, the book in question, a rare 1920s driving manual for New Yorkers, is not quite as “fantastic” as many of the other highlighted finds.

I was rather surprised by this omission, and I would like to use the opportunity here to publicly invite Ms Barry to focus a future volume entirely on books found and rescued from the trash. I’m certain that there are many stories similar to the four above that haven’t yet been published anywhere, in print or online. Admittedly, most antiquarian dealers are probably too haughty to sift through the trash themselves, but I’m sure each of them has now and then acquired a rare book that, according to the seller, had come from a dumpster. If such a collection of stories helped motivate some of its readers to take up dumpster diving, then that would be the biggest service to book collecting I can think of.

At the end of all this, the reader might ask whether I also have any similar stories of dumpster finds of my own. I definitely do, and at least one of them can compete with the four I have selected for the present post. However, I’ll probably use these stories for blog posts of their own – and I can’t post everything at once. Stay tuned!

Sources: