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But in cerebral San Francisco, a battle royal is raging over the direction of the city's library and the future of its outdated card catalog.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bibliographic anachronism than a writer who blankets the pages of national magazines with carefully crafted essays on out-of-date film projectors, the neglected intricacies of nail clippers (see sidebar), and long-forgotten rules of punctuation like the comma-dash?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.

“When Nick Baker came here, he suddenly became the queen bee of the hive,” says librarian Melissa Riley, an outspoken supporter of the card catalog and critic of Ken Dowlin. “We were all like these little worker bees saying, 'Something's wrong; something's wrong.' People knew that things were wrong, but Nicholson crystallized it.” [page]

The most painful sting for library officials may come when Baker starts disseminating the information he's collected. He recently completed a new treatise for the New Yorker devoted solely to the New Main. It's doubtful that Dowlin will be sending copies of the article to friends and relatives with his Christmas cards.

“The whole country is going to know about what's going on at the New Main,” Riley crows with anticipation. “This involves a lot more than just the card catalog. Ken Dowlin is somebody who basically decided to discard the past in favor of the future rather than seeing them as both necessary and desirable.”

It makes sense that Nick Baker grew up in Rochester, N.Y. “It's the perfect city for me,” he explains. “It's unheralded and nobody grows up with a burning desire to live there. You had to look for interesting things and make everyday things interesting. When I write, I'm often picking an out-of-the-way thing or an utterly commonplace thing and giving it the tuxedo treatment.”

Baker had planned to be wearing a tuxedo in an orchestra pit when he finished high school and enrolled in the Eastman School of Music. He lasted one year. “I didn't turn out to be very musical at all,” he says. “I sort of sensed in high school that I didn't have what real composers have — the mental hardware to hear the harmonies in your head.”

After graduating from Haverford College, Baker headed back to Rochester to launch a writing career. He sold his bassoon to help support himself. At the tender age of 24, he got the break many older writers only dream about. The New Yorker accepted a short story he'd written about a character who hires people to sleep for him. Baker's elation was short-lived. “I thought I had it all figured out, but it turned out I'd said everything I had to say at that point,” he remembers.

With rejection slips and unfinished stories piling up, Baker ended up in Boston where he happily toiled in the city's “temp underworld.” It gave him a chance to drop in on huge corporations and government bureaucracies, gather fodder for his writing, and move on. He gave up on short stories and was soon publishing essays in the Atlantic Monthly and other magazines.

Novels followed — The Mezzanine (1988), which takes place during an office worker's lunch hour and features ruminations on drinking straws and the meaning of neckwear, and Room Temperature (1990), a uniquely Bakerian look at child care. But Baker didn't truly establish himself until 1992 with Vox, an inventive tale of phone sex that the New York Times Book Review called “extraordinary.” He followed it up in 1994 with The Fermata, a tale of stopping time, bare-naked ladies, and masturbation. Some derided the effort as highbrow fodder for Penthouse Forum and wondered if Baker had shot his wad as a novelist. But among his growing cult of hard-core readers, the book cemented Baker's reputation as a quirky, major talent.

Baker credits an unexpected source for his increasing success.
“I didn't figure out how to write until after I got married and had a child,” says Baker, whose daughter was born in 1987, followed by a son six years later. “I suddenly realized I had to write for a living, and I had to say the things I had stored up. I attribute it entirely to father hormones. I think having a child actually changes the chemistry of your brain.”

The success of Vox gave Baker and his family the financial wherewithal to leave the small town in upstate New York where they were living and move to Berkeley. Baker's wife, Margaret, grew up there and her father still teaches medieval history at Cal.

“We decided we'd eaten enough corn, and we wanted to live in a place that had more bookstores,” Baker says. “I never imagined I'd end up suing the San Francisco Library.”

In June, Baker sued the library under the city's Sunshine Ordinance to gain access to the ornately carved, 79-year-old catalog and a portion of the more than 3 million index cards it contains. The catalog has been “frozen” since 1991 when librarians stopped updating it in preparation for the switch to an on-line system. Dowlin, who had expressed a desire to auction off the catalog, was forced to grant access when the City Attorney's Office ruled the card catalog, which still sits in the deserted Old Main, was a public record.

“I'm interested in the history of scholarship and, therefore, I'm interested in the card catalog,” Baker says. “It's part of the collection. It's unique. It's crucial to the history of San Francisco. By being frozen, the card catalog shows what the library wanted in its collection in the 20th century. That's an important thing to know.”

Baker, who became a skilled computer user during his days as a temp and regularly goes on-line to research his stories, maintains that he's hardly antediluvian. Beyond his desire for a “snapshot” of S.F. at the millennium, Baker defends the catalog as a vital backup to the on-line system, a temperamental setup rife with quirks and inaccuracies that eliminates the serendipitous search. The library computers not only botch hard-to-spell names, but they often list a single author under several separate headings. Look up “Tennyson,” for example, and you may not get the same list of books you got when you looked up “Alfred Lord Tennyson.” Finally, the commands of many on-line catalogs are simply difficult to figure out. In his New Yorker piece, Baker puts the frustrations of a computer search in — you guessed it — card catalog terms:

“It's as if you walked up to a card catalog you hadn't used in a while and weren't sure whether, in order to open a drawer, you were supposed to pull on the drawer handle, push on the drawer handle, twirl the brass end of the holding rod, or fart twice and sing 'God Bless America' in a hoarse falsetto.” [page]

Baker and the card catalog contingent don't just want the catalog preserved; they want it moved to the sixth floor of the New Main where patrons could decide for themselves whether to use it or not.

Dowlin grimaces when confronted with those arguments. The move would not only eliminate exhibition space, but he contends it would deliver a steady stream of confused librarygoers to already overworked librarians.

“I couldn't find a book using the card catalog when I came here nine years ago, and I have two master's degrees,” he says. “The thing was totally inaccurate and almost useless as a search tool then, so just imagine how off it is now. Thousands of books that have cards aren't in the library anymore. Thousands have different call numbers. If you think people are confused by the on-line system, wait until they try to find a book with that obsolete card catalog.”

While Baker and a band of about 50 supporters who pack commission meetings make a lot of noise, Dowlin has libraries across the nation to back up his position. For a city of its size, San Francisco is already way behind the on-line curve. The New York Public Library, for example, abandoned its card catalog in the early '80s. Oakland made the switch in 1989. The University of California at Berkeley Library put the card catalog in storage three years ago. Only a handful of people have asked to see it since then, according to librarians at Cal.

“There simply hasn't been the widespread public demand for the card catalog you would expect if you listen to Mr. Baker,” says librarian Aija Kanbergs, who has worked at the Cal library since 1972. “I think he's milking the issue for all it's worth. He's overstating his case.”

But for Baker and his compatriots, this isn't just about the card catalog. A gaggle of librarians and activists has been seething over the direction the New Main has taken since the $140 million showcase opened in April. They don't like the pricey cafeteria; they don't like the increase in shelves (containing both rare and not-so-rare books) closed to the public as a security precaution; they don't like the corporate sponsorship exemplified by the Chevron Corporation Teen Center and the Bank of America Jobs and Career Center; and they don't like the ability of private groups — who helped finance the building — to throw invitation-only parties and other functions in the library.

Most of all, they don't like Dowlin's high-tech inclinations, which they say endanger books. Dowlin's own writing has given his critics ammunition. In his 1984 book The Electronic Library, Dowlin wrote: “Our ties to books may become a liability. I suggest that the trend away from the book, leading to increased use of other media, will continue, and we will be forced to decide whether our role is limited to 'the keeping of books.' ”

Dowlin maintains that just because he acknowledges a shift in the library's role doesn't mean he views books as the enemy. “Baker assumes that because I think computers are important and want to spend money on them that I hate books,” says Dowlin, who left his job as director of the Pikes Peak Public Library in Colorado Springs, Colo., to come to San Francisco in 1987. “That kind of thinking makes no sense to me at all.”

Dowlin traces much of the discontent at the library to his decision to reorganize the collection after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Sections were rearranged and some librarians saw their fiefdoms diminished. The children's section, for example, got bigger while the status of the math and science collection was downgraded. In other words, this isn't just a war of words; it's a battle for turf.

“There were librarians involved who didn't like the new arrangement, and they still work at the library,” Dowlin explains. “Baker fancies himself a preacher, and he's found a very small congregation. They're reinforcing each other. I would be very surprised if any of the people he's talking to were hired since I took over the library system.”

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. [page]

“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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