Card-Carrying Fetishist

Some bibliophiles hail Nicholson Baker as defender of a library under siege. His critics call him an antediluvian nutbag.

The charismatic rebel leader derides the deeds allegedly carried out by the ruling elite as "a hate crime against the past." He charges that innocent victims have been condemned to death and secretly carted off to a landfill. Government forces, in turn, blast the bearded insurgent as an unstable opportunist, an inflammatory propagandist. One official describes the rebel offensive as "bullshit."

The dateline for this story isn't Bosnia, Chechnya, or even Haiti. It's San Francisco, and the conflict is, literally, a war of words. All the verbal artillery is flying over a subject that other major cities -- faced with crime, drugs, and poverty -- wouldn't give a second thought. But in cerebral San Francisco, a battle royal is raging over the direction of the city's library and the future of its outdated card catalog.

"It's a holy war over the most unholy subject I've ever heard of," says exasperated Library Commission President Steven Coulter. "My God, this is all over a card catalog. And the lack of civility in the discussions is just amazing."

The "rebels" are a band of librarians and activists who cherish the card catalog as a symbol of San Francisco and view attempts to trash it as a sign of deeper problems afflicting S.F.'s library system. They accuse City Librarian Ken Dowlin of "killing" books by dumping them from the collection, just as he planned to "disappear" the card catalog. It's all part of Dowlin's bibliophobic final solution, they allege, to make the library a high-tech showplace instead of a sanctuary for books.

The rebel leader, the Che of the card catalog, is none other than journalist/novelist Nicholson Baker. A card catalog on death row couldn't ask for a better advocate.

Who better to appreciate the bibliographic anachronism than a writer who blankets the pages of national magazines with carefully crafted essays on out-of-date film projectors, the neglected intricacies of nail clippers (see sidebar), and long-forgotten rules of punctuation like the comma-dash? One Baker novel uses a broken shoelace as a device to drive the "plot," and the author admits that his keepsakes include a half-filled glass jar of peanut butter with a metal lid -- for nostalgia's sake in an age of plastic.

When obscurity knocks on Baker's door, he invites it in for an interview. And what could be more obscure than card catalogs, those hulking collections of paper, wood, and metal rods? Most librarians love the devices about as much as a paper cut, and they've been gleefully replacing them with on-line search engines for more than a decade. San Francisco Library officials had planned to catch up with the rest of the country by dumping its card catalog when it moved into the New Main earlier this year.

That's where Nicholson Baker comes in.
"Having covered drinking straws, escalators, and those little roller things that spin hot dogs around, I felt the next piece of mature technology to write about was the card catalog," Baker deadpans. "It seemed like something worth celebrating as a kind of commonplace object that has inspired feelings of sentimental attachment."

Baker started the party with a 17,000-word paean to card catalogs that the New Yorker ran in 1994: "It was going to be a little 3,000-word piece on some of the nice sensations of using the card catalog, but I got a bee in my bonnet."

Make that a swarm. Baker's lamentation on the widespread destruction of card catalogs -- "historical artifacts," no less -- caught the attention of a few S.F. librarians. He says they e-mailed an SOS for the card catalog along with a laundry list of complaints about the city's library system under the guidance of Dowlin, whom Baker refers to as "Mr. Technology." It seems some of the librarians believe Dowlin doesn't just dislike card catalogs; he hates books!

"It's clear that the New Main is not devoted to the book," says Cathy Bremer, the Presidio Branch manager. "It's time everybody knew it."

But water-cooler revolutionaries are nothing without a leader. Enter Baker, a Berkeley resident who descended on the library to conduct research and ended up a well-read insurrectionist. With some Rogaine and a few weeks' more growth of his salt-and-pepper beard, the 39-year-old Baker might pass for Rasputin in tweed. Soft-spoken, tall, and intense, Baker seems to hold an almost mystical sway over a ragtag collection of feisty librarians and disgruntled activists.

Together, they're making life hell for the library commissioners who endure their long-winded, often biting harangues at meetings and library brass who suffer their frequent barbs. One of the more popular charges made by Baker and crew is that Dowlin ordered the destruction of books because the New Main isn't big enough to hold the library's entire collection. (Baker and an intrepid band of librarians actually staged a late-night break-in at the Old Main to measure shelf space and back up their claim.)

Despite the brainy nature of the conflict, the discourse is not always sophisticated or even polite. Dowlin, a former Marine, howls that Baker's accusations are "bullshit" and that his literary efforts are "crap." Baker, who successfully sued the library to gain access to the catalog, counters that "the card catalog has more intimate knowledge of the library than has ever traveled through one tiny little part of Ken Dowlin's brain." Off the record, library brass hint that Baker might be missing a few books in his own mental library. Librarians on both sides complain that their counterparts have resorted to threats and intimidation at work. After a series of contentious -- make that raucous -- meetings, the Library Commission has yet to decide exactly what will happen to the card catalog.

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