"Everyone knows" that in order to properly preserve printed
materials they must be microfilmed. For more than 30 years
libraries and commercial companies have committed their
documents to microfilm in order to ensure permanent records.
Between 1968 and 1984 the United States Library of Congress
destroyed more than $10 million worth of books in order to
microfilm them, according to author Nicholson Baker.
In an entire book devoted to the issue of microfilm versus
paper storage, Baker argues that the whole enterprise of
committing printed works to microfilm is wrong-headed.
Storing paper books indefinitely costs about a twentieth of
what it costs to microfilm them. The microfilm is not a
permanent record, but is also subject to aging and wear, not
to mention the possibility of developing blemishes and
spots. The microfilm itself is much harder to access,
requiring special expensive and clumsy readers. In many
cases the microfilm copy is of much poorer quality than the
paper original, and especially in the case of fine detail
such as in illustrations, the microfilm does a poor job of
capturing the details of many print originals.
Baker's book is entitled Double Fold after the test
performed in many libraries to determine if an old book is
brittle: fold a page corner twice and if it breaks off then
the book is too brittle. It sounds reasonable but Baker
argues that it is ridiculous. The real test, he says, is
page turning and he shows that even a book whose pages break
off before completing one fold are in condition to be read
many times: he was able to turn the broken page 800 times
without any further damage.
But won't all the old books turn to dust because of the acid
in their paper? Aren't libraries running out of room?
It turns out that acid makes the books yellow and brittle
but it will not make them turn into dust -- or at least no
one has seen it happen so far and it can certainly be
prevented if the books are stored carefully. The microfilm
itself does not last forever. If the microfilm itself
becomes at risk it must be reproduced again at a tremendous
cost and with a further loss in quality.
As for enough room, Baker claims that a proper warehouse can
be built for far less than the cost of microfilming.
If it makes so little sense, why does everyone microfilm?
Baker is not sure but he suggests that it is the financial
interest of the microfilm companies plus the aura of
technology and the assumption that if something is
technologically advanced it must be better.
Why are we bringing this up at this time?
Only because this week the yeshivas return to their regular
routine of learning Torah. The vision of thousands of the
Jewish people's finest learning Torah intensively provides a
contrasting backdrop to all those who are involved in
worldly pursuits such as microfilming. It demonstrates
clearly that someone may be involved in something that
appears important and productive but may in fact be a waste
of time and even cause damage.
As we get up to go to the beis medrash, we know that
we are getting up to divrei Torah that bring us and
our surroundings a guaranteed reward, and lead us to Olom
Habo. Those who are elsewhere cannot be sure of the
value of what they do.