Saturday, September 19, 2009

Folks I hope are rotting in hell

I tend to be a benevolent guy. I recognize people are flawed. We all do bad and/or stupid things. There's no such thing as absolutes. As a result, it is hard for me to drum up too much animosity for people. After reading Nicholson Baker's Double Fold, I think I found the third person I hope is rotting in hell.

The first person who should be enjoying eternal damnation is Henry Ford. Mass-production of the automobile was just an awful, awful thing to do. I firmly believe that most of the bad things in the world today can be traced back to this event. I'm not going to get into the details, mostly for fear that I'll come across as insane. I'm also not one for proselytizing (unless it is to get people to listen DeVotchKa).

The second inductee into the Hell Hall of Fame is Floyd Dominy. He certainly doesn't have the name recognition that Ford does which says something about how wrong he was in terms of his self-importance.

"I have no apologies. I was a crusader for the development of water. I was the Messiah. I was the evangelist who went out and argued persuasively for the harness of water for the benefit of people."

Mr. Messiah did a lot for ruining the environment throughout the Western United States. He recklessly sought to have dam projects built relying on the flawed message that dams would provide water for more people. I first became exposed to Dominy when a professor in an urban affairs class I was taking showed the documentary Cadillac Desert. If you have any interest in the environment, this movie (and presumably the book it is based on) is something you should watch (read). The more I learn about Dominy, the more I believe that the man was full of himself and was more interested in the power he wielded than any concern over providing water for others. He certainly had no concern over the effects of his projects on ecosystems.

The newest selection for damnation roasting for doing horrible, horrible things is similar to Dominy and my learning about him was similar as well. For one of my classes, I had to read a chapter of Double Fold. It was so good, I signed out the book and read the whole thing. This book is about the misguided plan to "preserve" newspaper through microfilming. Verner Clapp was the chief assistant librarian at the Library of Congress when he began touting microfilm as a way to preserve newspaper that was supposedly becoming brittle due to the acids in the print.

The concept is noble. Preserving the historical record contained in newspapers is a very good idea. Unfortunately Clapp pushed for the disposal of newspapers after they were microfilmed. One, these papers were supposedly disintegrating (which was and is false). Two, microfilm is much more convenient to store and eliminating newspapers would give libraries more space for other materials. Lastly, Clapp was so jazzed about microfilm that once he left the LOC to become head of the Council of Library Resources he pushed the microfilming of old books. Do you know the quickest way to microfilm a book? Cut the spine off, get rid of the covers and copy the unattached pages. Once a book has been torn apart like that, few people want it. Plus, now its on microfilm, so who cares, right?

I've been using microfilm for almost half of my life. As a baseball historian whose primary interest is baseball before 1920, I don't have too many options for newspaper access. As a veteran user I can tell you the quality of microfilm copies aren't always real high. The copies may be too light, they may be incomplete, the film may have been stored improperly and has broken down, the film may have been torn. Lots of things could go wrong when the film was made and quality control apparently was not too much of an issue. With so many original materials being discarded after microfilming, there's no way to make better copies.

Sadly, lessons weren't learned as we're seeing similar things as we move to digitization. I interned at a college library this summer where they digitized all student transcripts. Fortunately, someone had the sense to give the originals to the archives department in the library. It turns out the digitization process was done poorly and many transcripts are unreadable. How would you feel if you needed your official transcript for a job or graduate school and you're given an unreadable pdf?

Double Fold is an extremely biased account of the microfilm issue and has been debated among librarians for the last decade. Baker is very passionate about keeping original newspapers and started a non-profit to acquire old newspapers and preserve them. He eventually donated all the newspapers and they are now kept at Duke University.

I hope that people realize that there is no such thing as an ideal media for preservation. Just like those who thought microfilm was a panacea, there have been supporters of Beta, VHS, laser discs, floppy discs, etc. New isn't always the answer and keeping the original historic record isn't always a bad thing.

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