No daddies, apparently

March 2nd, 2003 § Two comments

Anyone who cares about libraries, newspapers, or history—and I care about all three—would be disturbed by Nicholson Baker’s book Double Fold, which describes how libraries around the world came to replace thousands of pristine volumes of newspapers with inferior microfilm.

What’s more, I’ve experienced one of the worst problems of microfilm—the occasional missing page, section, or entire issue of a publication—more times than I can remember. Several months ago, I went looking for a New York Times article from September 1959 describing the previous decade’s problem with juvenile gang violence; Jane Jacobs cited the article in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and I was quite curious to read it. After some searching, I found it in the Times‘ subject index for that year. When I looked at the microfilm, though, the section it appeared in was missing entirely. Most daily newspapers no longer keep a print run of their own papers, so it’s quite possible that the article no longer exists anywhere at all.

But none of that disturbed me half as much as this passage:

The railroad from Cairo to Alexandria, imposed on the Abbas Pasha by the English in the early 1850s, runs through several bustling necropolises; Egypt had no indigenous coal and very little wood. A small item in the September 27, 1859, edition of the Syracuse Daily Standard reads: “Egypt has 300 miles of railroad. On the first locomotive run, mummies were used for fuel, making a hot fire. The supply of mummies is said to be almost inexhaustible, and are used by the cord.” Dard Hunter’s Papermaking cites an informant’s report that “during a ten-year period the locomotives of Egypt made use of no other fuel than that furnished by the well-wrapped, compact mummies.”

A geologist by the name of Isaiah Deck decided it would be better to remove the mummies’ linen shrouds and use them to make rag paper. There is evidence that American paper manufacturers took his advice.

The mind reels.

Two comments

  • Peter Pehrson says:

    Hold it, cowboy. I think you’re a little too compliant regarding old and emerging urban myths.
    First off, that load about how precious newspapers are in the original is simply not founded on fact if you look at any 20th century and most late 19th century newspaper stock…it’s groundwood with a shelf life of about 5 years. In order to preserve the information, doesn’t it make sense to document it photographically…those newspapers are useless in the original and quickly become dust….and that old saw about Egyptian mummies powering steam locomotives…puh-LEEZ. A mathematician (who was French, and I can get you the entire citation if you want concrete proof) proved that for that old wives’ tale to be true, more people than ever EXISTED on earth would have had to die and be mummified by the time they were used for firewood. By the way, I have this bridge in Brooklyn…interested? (grin!)…hope you take this in the uncritical, good spirit brotherhood in which it is intended.

  • Jeff says:

    Peter, you should read Nicholson Baker’s book. He thoroughly demolishes the notion that old books and newspapers “quickly become dust.” Librarians don’t discard old volumes of newspapers because they are crumbling; they discard them because they want to free up space in their stacks, and because they have been seduced by the promise of new technology. Baker’s book includes full-color reproductions of several pages from turn-of-the-century newspapers, and they’re in remarkably good condition.
    There are many good reasons why microfilm is an inadequate substitute for newsprint. I already mentioned the problem of missing pages, which is serious enough on its own. Another is that microfilm degrades surprisingly quickly, far faster than well-preserved newsprint in many cases. Still another is that microfilm shows far less detail than newsprint: it is black and white rather than grayscale or color; it is lower resolution; and its text is often obscured by graphics that photograph as solid swaths of black. Baker provides more reasons in his book.
    Microfilm is certainly a useful supplement to newsprint. The problem is that librarians have used the existence of the microfilm as an excuse to get rid of the newsprint. What’s left is a low-quality historical record that’s full of holes and controlled entirely by the handful of companies that sell microfilm copies of newspapers.
    As for the mummy issue, Baker provides more corroboration in his book, particularly for the premise that mummies’ shrouds were used to make rag paper. I suppose the story about using mummies to fuel trains might be an urban legend of sorts, but I’m not willing to rule it out on the basis of a mathematical proof.

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