Patricia Battin, Lightning Rod in a Library War, Dies at 89
June 10, 2019 5:19 PM   Subscribe

Patricia Battin, Lightning Rod in a Library War, Dies at 89 (New York Times): In the 1980s, she led a national campaign to save millions of disintegrating books that were published between 1850 and 1950, persuading Congress to increase its funding for microfilming these so-called brittle books.To many librarians, Ms. Battin, who died on April 22 at 89, was a pioneer and a visionary. Horrified that the printed word seemed to be crumbling to dust before her eyes, she helped lead the profession out of the dark ages and embraced the digital revolution. To others, however, this revolution was misguided. It was, they said, stoked by hyperbole and had devastating consequences: the destruction of irreplaceable original documents.

NYTimes: Leading the charge was the acclaimed writer Nicholson Baker, who argued that printed works were not crumbling and that librarians were exaggerating the problem to feed the new technologies.[...]

He aimed his arrows at all manner of respected institutions and individuals, including the librarians of Congress, the New York Public Library and, singling her out by name, Ms. Battin. From 1987 to 1994, she was president of the Commission on Preservation and Access (now the Council on Library and Information Resources), a private nonprofit group dedicated to preserving published materials and archives in all formats.

Ms. Battin’s career was winding down as Mr. Baker was winding up on the subject of preservation. But she was nonetheless a lightning rod for a preservationist movement that remains controversial to this day.

Libraries and other institutions continue to wrestle with how to maintain and store their growing collections. And sometimes they throw out originals.[...]

“The book,” she wrote in 1989, “is a marvelous technology for use, but it is a cumbersome dissemination format and an increasingly frail storage format in this age of rapid telecommunications.”

Association of Research Libraries: Memorial: Patricia Battin, 1929–2019

American Libraries: Patricia Battin dies at 89

Wikipedia: Patricia Battin
posted by not_the_water (10 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
From the American Libraries piece: "Hired in 1974 by Columbia University as its director of library services, she created one of the first electronic card catalogs."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:40 PM on June 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

The lingering idiocy of Nicholson Baker’s reactionary and entirely uninformed screed helped undermine the preservation microfilming industry that employed me and the projects we undertook to save entire libraries, backed by his herd of outrage-fueled ninnies waving that stupid book around as a weapon. Will never forgive him for the fights people like me had to take on in already underfunded organizations to do the right thing when the bean counters would get hold of his contentions and tell librarians that it would be best (cheapest) to do nothing at all.

Battin has my respect, and the literature committed to microfilm because of her work has a 500+ year lifespan now thanks to her efforts.

posted by sonascope at 5:43 PM on June 10, 2019 [36 favorites]

posted by goofyfoot at 7:31 PM on June 10, 2019

Some heartfelt memories of her on the Frye email list.
posted by doctornemo at 7:55 PM on June 10, 2019

gotta say, as a microfilm-imaging research consumer, the format is extremely lossy. As an ephemera buyer, I have been grateful for the deaccessioned material. I wish that the large scale deaccessioning had been delayed by a generation such that the source material had been digitally imaged at higher resolution and bit depth.
posted by mwhybark at 8:10 PM on June 10, 2019 [14 favorites]

Isn’t this how we wound up with crappy fiche scans of newspapers that, as it turned out, held up remarkably well when properly bound for archival purposes? Instead, once scanned, the bound newspapers were destroyed and/or sold off to collectors. I believe it’s where all those “front page of the NYT on the day you were born” were harvested from when that was a thing.

(Happy to be corrected!)
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 8:46 PM on June 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Speaking as a heavy user of microfilm, I think microfilm is both great and the bane of my existence. Too many things have been rendered unreadable. There are major limitations to the format, and you can lose a lot of information. The worst is anything handwritten, especially if it was written in pencil; a high contrast picture can erase subtle lines in handwriting, making it almost impossible to decipher. This is especially problematic with names or anything that can’t be expected to follow a standard spelling.

There’s also variable quality. On good film, the documents are all sharply in focus, the exposure and contrast balanced so you don’t lose fine detail. But on too many occasions I’ve been unable to read anything (or view pictures), because the film just sucked. Entire pages can be out of focus, which is especially problematic where there’s small type (like a newspaper). Or pages are so underexposed or low-contrast that you can’t read them. Sometimes half the page is in shadow. I know it’s not always the photographer’s fault, but it always means being unable to access the information that was supposed to have been preserved this way.

Despite these complaints, it’s also clear that there isn’t endless space on library shelves, and I’d rather have a larger collection than not. Libraries do run out of space and money. I know microfilm is pretty stable, and it certainly doesn’t aggravate my allergies like dusty books and papers do. Plus, I’ve definitely been able to view things on microfilm that I could never have gotten to see in person, either because they were too fragile or valuable, or because I would have had to travel thousands of miles.

This is the first I’ve heard of Battin, but she really does sound like a visionary. It’s easy to criticize microfilm, but it sounds like her ultimate goal was the kind of access to information that’s easy to take for granted nowadays. She saw how technology could make that happen (like using computers for library catalogs), and she did it. Everything she said sounds absolutely right. There’s no perfect solutions for anything, except to give libraries unlimited money, and in the imperfect world I’d rather have someone trying to do what she did.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:06 PM on June 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

The tragedy of Baker is that his assault on librarians came right at the moment when those of us working in the microfilm and digital imaging business were coming up with the proper tools to deal with massive, aging collections of information on paper that was so saturated with acid and lignin that they sat turning into piles of autumn leaves even when they were kept in the proper environment, and the hamfisted way he went about his self-annointed heroics made matters worse, not better.

The problems of microfilm were usually problems of quality control. Cut the budget for conversion and get the cheapest possible bidder and you get film coming from never-maintained cameras, duplicated on broken-down duplicators for distribution, given over to the public to jam into readers that either the public didn't understand on the libraries didn't have the funding to repair. When Baker came along, the beancounters would hold up the book and say "See? This very smart guy tells us it's best to do nothing!" and nothing would happen, except the continuation of deterioration and the lossiness incarnate that would occur when aging books and newspapers were handled by greasy-mitted folks in the stacks, with bindings breaking as idiots forced books open like beach paperbacks or breezed their way through brown newspapers that crackled into flakes looking for an article.

Microfilm was rendered unhip by people tired of bad diazo microfiche and industry salesmen pushing nothing but digital and Double Fold and its self-styled protagonist, and I had the unhappy experience of riding a whole business crashing to the ground while we all begged and pleaded for people to get it right and use appropriate technology for appropriate reasons, which occasionally ended up with books getting their bindings cut on the guillotine because the bid, not the workers, decided that the per-unit cost was better that way.

I came up with book cradles for books where the book itself was the thing (like medieval books in the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which we filmed in trios, with archivists turning and holding the pages with delicate ivory tongs while an MRD operator clicked through the frames) and I happily put volumes of a several hundred book PHS study on elephantiasis of the scrotum on the precision cutter to cleanly cut off the plain brown library binding so that we could scan each page at a pace that was economical and as complete as possible. The people in the libraries, museum archives, and the imaging business worked insanely hard to get the best available image, but that task was made harder, not easier, by a hostile outsider telling us that everything we did was wrong.

Before I bailed out, though, I was handed a set of crates labeled in the distinctive style of the Third Reich, containing hundreds of rolls of WWII-era AGFA microfilm collected by the liberating forces as they went through the aftermath of the concentration camps. The "backfile-conversion," an industry term that sounded particularly crass in that every single frame came from the records of Birkenau, was simple enough—just scan the film for distribution to researchers—but I had to fight the fiscal folks in the corporation the whole time. Baker and his disciples want to paint my former line of work as rampaging destroyers of some noble ideal of a library, but we fought tooth and nail to get it right and invented new technologies and techniques along the way. The original documents were long-gone, but the names on the pages weren't just names—in some cases, they were all that would ever be left of those people, and we ended up having to justify putting in the extra time and effort to retrieve information that would have otherwise been lost.

It's been fifteen years since I left the business to go into arts management and (recently) into academics, but I still feel sad when I remember how much we had to fight for because someone like Patricia Battin got stuck with a persistent troll. It was glumly prescient of where we've landed in the all-digital realm, alas.
posted by sonascope at 3:32 AM on June 11, 2019 [31 favorites]

I feel you, sonascope.

And now heaps of well-done microform are now being deaccessioned without having been digitized, so for the most part we'll never even know what we lost.

And many of the private organizations involved in the original messy stage have gone on to be the gatekeepers of academic journal publishing (e.g. Bell & Howell -> Proquest).

It's not like all the concerns about this stuff were in Double Fold territory - there were plenty of more rational people trying to get it right from inside the institutions, and Battin was one of them.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:49 AM on June 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Speaking as someone who fought for the digitization of my department's print materials, and ended up doing a lot of the scanning and cataloguing myself, the deaccession is gonna happen when TPTB decide they need the space. It's usually not a choice between digitization and holding on to the physical materials indefinitely; it's a choice between digitization and losing the materials completely.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:23 AM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

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