First Monday

A Response to Mr. Henderson by Richard J. Cox

I have read carefully Mr. Henderson's response to my essay about the controversy generated by Nicholson Baker concerning the destruction of original newspapers and their replacement by microfilm. The focus of my essay was on the newspaper situation, while the focus of Mr. Henderson is on some greater conspiracy (in his view) regarding the economics of academic libraries and, given the substance of the debate about microfilming newspapers, I see only a minor relationship between the two. My point was simple, that microfilming newspapers is not part of any abdication of responsibilities to preserve our documentary heritage, but it is rather an effort to do the opposite by preserving content and enhancing access to that content in a way that maintaining original newspapers could never accomplish. Obviously, Mr. Henderson has used this as an opportunity for a harangue about academic libraries and hisperception of their mistreatment of commercial publishers.

While I am familiar with many of the sources Mr. Henderson cites (and I am certainly in sympathy with many of the problems generated by an increasing corporate mentality of universities), I do not consider the economics of academic library management to be an area of my expertise. Again, my focus was on the matter of preservation, appraisal and selection for preservation, and the cultural role of libraries and archives as these matters surfaced in the debate generated by Nicholson Baker in his recent article about the destruction of newspapers. Had Mr. Henderson chosen to focus on one of these issues, I would have been happy to provide a more in-depth response. Instead, he jumps past the substance of my article, announcing that the "'Big Lie' goes deeper than debates over newspapers and card catalogs," to weave a very dark conspiracy about the misguided actions of academic library directors and university administrators and the innocence of commercial publishers. This all strikes me as a bit too black and white, in much the same fashion that some of Nicholson Baker's characterizations seem to be. Statements such as "With arcane profits cloaked by administrative practice, academic managers have unblushingly choked their libraries and cast stones at commercial publishers" or "too many of the librarians who have become the economic captives of their institutions ... seem stricken by the Stockholm syndrome: hostages who identify with their captors. They have been recognized as enemies of the library and its patrons" seem a bit excessive and sweeping and certainly not in keeping with most sentiments expressed by academic librarians about how they view their mission. However, I will leave it to some one else with more expertise than I to respond to Mr. Henderson's comments on the economic situation or the complicity of academic librarians or university administrators in concocting some sort of hoax.

Some of Mr. Henderson's comments appear to be rather sweeping assessments, again much like those found in some of Mr. Baker's writings about libraries. For example, he writes, "There seems to be a policy of cost containment, one that is not reasoned in terms of library use or the needs of library patrons." In terms of the newspaper situation, it seems that the use of funds to microfilm newspapers would support most needs of most patrons to get ready access to the content of newspapers; individuals needing access to original newspapers must be a very small percentage of the researchers with particular scholarly interests that would be supported by access to originals. Mr. Henderson writes that the "gap between financial support of libraries and their financial requirements to do their job" will cause the "performance of libraries" to "decline" and the "interest of our society in knowledge and culture will suffer." This does not square with the newspaper situation being described in my essay as the reformatting of newspapers has undoubtedly preserved the content of many newspapers that would have been lost had no action been taken and, besides this, has certainly enhanced the access to newspapers that would have been restricted if microfilming had not been carried out. Mr. Henderson throws newspapers into a larger indictment that the "administrative culture - including some librarians and managers with advanced degrees - has no idea what libraries mean to their users." I simply can't concur with this assessment when viewing the debate about the newspapers.

A final point is worth making. Mr. Henderson posted a version of these comments to the SHARP-L Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing listserv on February 20th. One individual (Peter Graham) responded on February 23rd in this way: "Mr Henderson is a consultant to the publishing industry, and his brief appears to be to engage in library discussions to represent a point of view that supports their interests, though he understandably seldom says so up front. His comments should be viewed in that light. The extensive note I am replying to contains of course little factual information not already widely known, as he says, but gives them a particular and tendentious interpretation." For myself, I am not connected to any newspaper microfilming project and simply engaged Mr. Baker out of my own expertise in dealing with issues of archives, records management, and the maintenance of our documentary heritage through libraries, archives, and museums. For that matter, Nicholson Baker seems to be pursuing his campaign out of a sincere interest in what libraries and archives are about with no particular vested interest other than the loss of valuable historical resources. Mr. Henderson may have another agenda. End of article


About the Author

Richard J. Cox is a Professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences where he teaches archives and records management. He is the author of six books and numerous articles on this and related subjects.

Editorial history

Paper received 24 February 2001; accepted 1 March 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

A Response to Mr. Henderson by Richard J. Cox
First Monday, volume 6, number 3 (March 2001),