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News Feeds, Microfilm, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

A little over a week ago, I watched the searing and provocative TED talk by British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, “Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy.” It got me thinking about a few library things, which I thought might make for an interesting blog post. Then thinking about these library things took me down a series of rabbit holes, interconnecting and nuanced and compelling enough to chew up the entirety of the time I’d set aside for my turn in the Bitstreams blog rotation. There is no breezy, concise blog post that could pull them all together so I’m just going to do with it what I can with two of the maybe four or five rabbit holes that I fell into.

Cadwalladr took the stage at a TED conference sponsored by Facebook and Google, and spoke about her investigations into the role of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in the Brexit vote in 2016. Addressing the big tech leaders present – the “Gods of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey” – she levelled a devastating j’accuse – “[W]hat the Brexit vote demonstrates is that liberal democracy is broken. And you broke it. This is not democracy — spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from God knows where. It’s subversion, and you are accessories to it.”

It was a courageous act, and Cadwalladr deserves celebration and recognition for it, even if the place it leaves us is a bleak one. As she would admit later, she felt massive pressure as she spoke. I had a number of reactions to her talk, but there was a line in particular got me thinking about library things. It occurred when she explained to that audience that “this entire referendum took place in darkness, because it took place on Facebook…, because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it’s impossible to research anything.” It provoked me to think about how we use “news feeds” – in the form of newspapers themselves – in the study of history, and the role that libraries play in preserving them.

It’s something with which I am familiar from my own studies of local history. I live in Pittsboro, NC, a small town just outside of the Triangle region, and have written a few articles about the town and the county, Chatham, of which it is the seat. My article on the rabbit market in Chatham appeared in the journal Southern Cultures in 2012, and I told the story of the Confederate monument that stands in the center of Pittsboro on a blog about the time of its centennial; a community newspaper, Chatham County Line, asked me to update the monument piece to run in issues last October, November, December, as efforts have developed to petition the county’s Board of Commissioners to remove the statue and return it to its owners, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Both of these studies depended heavily on newspapers, in particular the local (and still publishing) Chatham Record, whose historical run is microfilmed and accessible, among other libraries, in the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill.

So I started to tell myself a nice story about libraries and newspapers in the U.S.A. In this story, libraries act in counterweight to the generally much more evil corporate powers like Facebook, preserving “news feeds” for later study, insuring that the public record remains intact so that it can be subject to study and analysis by those who wonder why Britain might vote to leave the EU, or how communities in the U.S. South came to festoon their public spaces with monuments to the Lost Cause narrative of the war that Frederick Douglass, at a kind of TED talk in 1862, called The Slaveholders’ Rebellion.

A grant application to the NEH from a few years ago provides a narrative for the early part of the story as it played out in North Carolina. The “State Library and other libraries around the state” through the mid-20th-Century collected newspapers  “with little thought toward and, just as importantly, few avenues for long-term preservation of the newsprint.” Then in 1959, they undertook the North Carolina Newspaper Project, an effort to produce microfilm copies of newspapers, for which “staff searched county-by-county…, reaching out to public libraries, historical societies and, even, individuals for copies.” Over the next dozen or so years, the NCNP produced over 2400 reels, which, I assume, we are to take to be a lot of microfilm.

From there the story shifts to a massive, coordinated, nationwide curatorial project funded and conducted by the federal government. From 1982-2011, the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsored the United States Newspaper Program (USNP) – “a cooperative national effort among the states and the federal government to locate, catalog, and preserve on microfilm newspapers published in the United States from the eighteenth century to the present.” The NEH partnered for the project with the Library of Congress, granting funds to state archives and university libraries to have them catalog and reformat their states’ various newspaper collections. It spurred a kind of restart in the 1990s for the NCNP, pushing the tally over 2500 catalog records and 3 million pages – again, a lot of microfilm.

Then more recently, that narrative continues as the NEH-LC partnerships builds on the USNP with the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), in an effort to build digital collections derived from the microfilm versions.

It reads like a great library story. It really begins in NC with the State Library (or the State Archives in later years), in partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill, our colleagues just down US 15-501, with whom Duke shares a sports rivalry, and great collegiality and cooperation in things library. As I told the story to myself, I didn’t really see Duke in it. We have digitized the student-run newspaper here, the Chronicle, but broadly speaking, collecting NC newspapers hasn’t really been an emphasis.

Then, as I felt myself nearing the conclusion of the story I was spinning, navigating to the end of the rabbit hole (do rabbit holes have ends? not sure), and forming a concise, coherent outline for a blog post, I realized that I had entirely forgotten about Nicholson Baker. Baker, a novelist and essayist, published first an article in the New Yorker article in July, 2000, titled “Deadline: The author’s desperate bid to save America’s past,” then the next year a book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, that themselves formed a j’accuse directed at institutions for sending news feeds down the memory hole. In this case, he pointed his finger at libraries, for doing all this microfilming, and then – a part of the story that I had elided out – discarding the original newsprint.

Baker’s critique was devastating, and his style bombastic. “Like missile defense,” he intoned in “Deadline,” “Leading-edge library automation is a money pit.” I mean, he’s not wrong, but missile defense? Come on. Of the US Newspaper Program, he said:

The effect of all this N.E.H. microfilm money has been to trigger a last huge surge of discarding, as libraries use federal preservation grants to solve their local space problems. Not since the monk-harassments of sixteenth-century England has a government tolerated, indeed stimulated, the methodical eradication of so much primary source material.

The Library Journal review of Double Fold called Baker “a romantic, passionate troublemaker who questions the smug assumptions of library professionals.” Many library professionals didn’t take that questioning as good faith, and maybe wondered when they would start getting missile-defense-level money.

Here’s an article in the journal First Monday by an LIS professor, granting many of Baker’s arguments, but calling out how “[t]he decision to use microfilm is again presented almost as if it is part of a vast coordinated conspiracy.” The paranoid elements in Baker’s style bugged a lot of library people, as did, no doubt, the fact that they were presenting their rebuttals in venues like First Monday while Baker was on CSpan (not a shot at First Monday, but it’s not on basic cable).

I think many of those who responded to Baker back in the Aughts were unhappy that he presented decisions about library policy as if they were driven by conspiratorial impulses. Whatever the case, it’s a debate that’s now far enough behind us that I’d forgotten about it more or less altogether. In a sign of how that moment has passed, the Wikipedia page for Double Fold links to two pages that ARL posted in response to Baker’s criticisms (“Q&A in response to Double Fold,” “Talking Points in Response to Nicholson Baker’s New Yorker article”), and which now both redirect to a more generic page on preservation.

Baker founded the American Newspaper Repository in 1999 to preserve a set of newspapers he acquired from the British Library, a project that he wrote about in “Deadline” and Double Fold. “Maybe someday,” he wrote, “A research library will want to take responsibility for these things, or maybe not ….” In 2004, one did. This past week marks fifteen years since Baker appeared on campus at Duke and gave a speech publicizing the move of the ANR to the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library (RBMSCL, now the Rubenstein Library). “I’m thrilled that they’re going to Duke,” he said. “This is the best possible thing that could happen to a singular collection.”

The ANR’s announcement of the move on its own website linked to what it claimed were guidelines for use of the collection, on a now defunct web site called “Resource Shelf,” and with the name of the former Director of Research Services at the RBMSCL. Just to underscore the fraught nature of it all, these guidelines specified that “[i]n order to preserve the newspapers as long as possible, we require researchers to do initial research when possible using microform reproductions or online electronic databases available through your library.” I’m not sure how enforceable that would have been. The finding aid for the collection today just says “Collection is open for research.” Whatever the case, it’s worth pointing out that preservation is always a big commitment – here’s Beth Doyle, Leona B. Carpenter Senior Conservator, boxing the 1906 Chicago Tribune more than eight years after the ANR came to Duke.

Also in the ANR’s announcement, Baker thanked then-University-Librarian, David Ferriero, who is now Archivist of the United States. Ferriero continues to refer to Double Fold in his remarks on the role of the archive in maintaining the public record, doing so as recently as last year during an event with Carla Hayden at ALA.

As I said, I’ve written about only a few of the rabbit holes that opened before me as I thought about Cadwalladr’s powerful TED talk. I may come back to some of the others when the blog rotation rolls back my way, but will leave on this point. The image at the head of this post shows a page from the Chatham Record, published in 1898. As you can see, whole sections of it are unreadable. The OCR text (sampled below) is gibberish.

OCR text from the August 25, 1898 issue of the Chatham Record.

I captured it from the North Carolina Newspapers digital collection on DigitalNC, and I can say that its run of the Record contains many, many pages that look like this one. Without metadata about the provenance of these images, I can’t know when the paper was microfilmed – was it in the early, 1960s-wave of the NCNP? Was it later, with the NEH-funded USNP in the 1990s? Another project altogether? Whatever the source, the digital reproduction is powerless to retain information lost from poor microfilm reproduction.

Now, I happen to I know, because I’ve asked about it, that the Record retains the bound volumes of the past newspapers in its own offices. It’s not a library setting, but it’s at least possible that I could read this issue of the paper if I really needed to. Libraries generally aren’t as evil as Facebook and Google, but Nicholson Baker was not all wrong. Far too much of the “news feed” of the past is lost to our best intentions.