Double Fold by Nicholson Baker. A new technology should be better than the old one.

Double foldRemember the microfiche machines in libraries during the 80’s? As high school students, we were told to use them as part of research assignments. The machines were futuristic … in a 60’s way. A mammoth black box, with a lamp projecting black and white text and images from plastic cards onto a screen. A fan blew off the considerable heat it generated. Maybe you can still find one of these behemoths tucked away in the corner of your library. I don’t use them. I still use books.

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper was published by Nicholson Baker in 2001. He reported his indepth research into librarians’ mass destruction of books and newspapers scanned to microfiche. If microfiche is antiquated now, Baker’s observations are still valuable lessons for our our present day e-book revolution.

A crisis will be invented to fund technological change

There are always those who resist change. Baker was not among them. He endorsed scanning to microfiche if the original print materials were not destroyed. There’s the rub. It takes money to buy and use the new technology, and money is always tight in libraries. The budget of the old technology, print, is a tempting target. A switch in budget requires justification, a problem with the old technology to be solved by the new.

A 1987 film, “Slow Fires”, by Terry Sanders, was used as evidence of the acid decay that was causing print books and newspapers to become brittle. A “double fold” test was performed by machine, working a strip of paper back and forth by 90 degrees, subjecting it to the force of one kilogram. The test was used to classify the durability of books and make predictions about their life expectancy. Baker’s research found little science in this method. Carefully preserved, many such works last much longer. Furthermore, microfiche also degrades with sunlight or improper care. The double fold test was pseudo-science, invented to legitimize the conversion from print to microfiche.

In the present day we hear many dubious claims about e-books. One popular claim is that e-books are greener than print books. In fact, e-books exist only on the backs of the environmentally costly externalities of digital technology: power generation, product manufacturing, and toxic waste in landfills. It is another spurious claim, a marketing strategy used to drive technological change.

Readability is the typical victim of changes in reading technology

My memory of microfiche is grainy black and white text and images, difficult to read and view. The scanning process took hand-drawn images and illustrations, colored photos, and textured documents and reduced them to degraded black and white film. It seems too obvious to say, books exist for reading. Did the scanners eat their own dog food? As absurd as it sounds, readability is the typical victim of changes in reading technology. Today’s e-books enhance readability in some ways, e.g., changeable font-size, while remaining limited in other ways. E-ink still only presents text and images in black and white, though apparently coloured e-ink is on the way. Tablet devices have monitors with colour but are backlit, causing eye strain. Ad placement in e-readers is making rapid ground, intended for no other purpose than to distract potential buyers from reading.

Print books are by no means a perfect technology. They take up a lot of space, are often heavy to transport, slow to search, and hard to remix. Digital technology can help with these things. Any conversion entails loss. The important question is whether the overall gains outweigh the losses. Weirdly, we often jump to the new technology if it is merely close in quality to the old. I will restate the question as an axiom: a new technology should be better than the old one. If the technologies serve different needs better, then like Baker I have no objection to the new technology if it does not entail destruction of the old. Ask yourself, given the accelerating demand for e-books in libraries, how long will librarians keeping purchasing both formats? On a broader scale, given current market trends, how long do you think both print and e-books will be continue to be published?