Card-Carrying Fetishist

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

At times, Baker does indeed seem the zealot. In a speech last May sponsored by the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Librarians Guild, Baker accused Dowlin of committing "a hate crime against the past," and referred to library administrators as Dowlin's "henchpeople." It's this sort of language and Baker's almost messianic zeal that leave library officials more than a little uneasy.

"That kind of death-camp language was really chilling," says Main Library Chief Kathy Page. "It was really extreme, and it made me wonder how stable he is."

The bickering never seems to stop. Baker accuses Dowlin of ordering the "weeding" or removal of 200,000 books because the New Main is too small to hold the collection. Dowlin counters that Baker plucks numbers out of thin air. Weeding, he points out, is a standard practice at libraries and was long overdue in San Francisco. A running argument over the amount of shelf space in the New Main vs. the old library prompted Baker, historian Walter Biller, and two anonymous librarians to sneak into the Old Main in the middle of the night last month armed with tape measures. After declaring the New Main had less room, Baker was forced to admit a few days later they had miscalculated; the New Main was bigger after all.

"My feeling is, you've got to tell the truth," Baker wrote on the Well, a computer bulletin board. "For me to be associated with a figure that is wrong is a nightmare. I'm twisting because I'm cast as the ringleader."

Nowhere is Baker's role as ringleader more apparent than at Library Commission meetings, which can get downright rowdy as they drag on into the night. Card catalog supporters make frequent references to "Mr. Baker" and his essay when they address the commission, often stepping before the microphone two or three times. When Baker speaks, the conclusion of his remarks is greeted by enthusiastic applause and even shouts of support.

"I've gotten to know Nick and his writings during this little struggle, and I find him a very clear, passionate, articulate voice for literary civility," gushes Timothy Gillespie, a self-described "finger wagger" and longtime activist with a knack for needling commission members. "Literature, words, and books matter very much to him."

Frustrated library commissioners paint a different picture of Baker and his efforts. Most have expressed opposition to the notion of putting the card catalog on the sixth floor, where it will take up valuable exhibition space. And many hint that Baker may have more than the library's best interest in mind.

"Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame, but Baker seems to want a lot more," says Commission President Coulter. "His article in the New Yorker got a good response, so he's playing the issue for all it's worth. This whole thing is a tremendous waste of time."

Even when Baker is out of the country, he manages to hold center stage. Melissa Riley acted as his surrogate at the Sept. 3 commission meeting: She presented each commissioner with a signed copy of Baker's latest book, The Size of Thoughts, which contains a reprint of his card catalog article. Although the commissioners accepted the gift as if it were a FedEx from the Unabomber, it may have served its purpose. The commission passed a resolution declaring that the library should preserve the card catalog in some form. Where it will end up is far from clear. It could be split up and scattered throughout the library, relegated to storage, or put on the sixth floor (the least likely option).

And Library Chief Kathy Page admitted in an Aug. 26 memo to her staff that "the unhappy fact remains that we have less storage capacity in the new building than we had planned and far less than we need." Although the memo wasn't nearly an admission that the library was guilty of excessive weeding or that books were less important than computers, it was certainly a moral victory for the Baker brigade. And, in many ways, this is a moral issue for them.

"It's outrageous -- a truly disgraceful thing -- for a library administration to treat its own collection like this," Baker says in a rising voice. "It's a deliberate squandering of its inheritance. If nobody stands up for the card catalog and the old books in the collection, then they're defenseless. I'm standing up for them.

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