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Card-Carrying Fetishist 

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

Wednesday, Sep 18 1996
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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.

About The Author

Gordon Young

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