"The assault on the USS Liberty" and "Slaughter in the stacks"

Readers respond to revelations about the USS Liberty and Nicholson Baker's challenge to America's libraries.

By Salon Staff

Published April 30, 2001 8:01PM (EDT)

Read "The assault on the USS Liberty."

I am a survivor of the attack on the Liberty. I have seen so many articles on the Liberty over the past 34 years that I have lost count. I believe James Bamford's is the greatest proof of what the Liberty survivors have been trying to say for many years. Telling the truth is extremely hard to do when your own government doesn't want to hear it. I personally helped recover and identify the men who died aboard Liberty. The hardest thing I have had to do in my life is talking to the families of these men, and trying to explain what happened out there. For 34 years now these mothers, fathers, wives and loved ones have grieved over the loss of their loved ones. When their own government won't take the time to recognize us, it is the shame of all time. That is exactly what has happened, and to this day they carry that shame. No one, not even a country as great as ours, can turn their backs on their own without reaping what they sow. The laws that were broken here are not laws that you will find by looking through old lawbooks and court cases. These are laws that are written by a power much greater then you and I.

-- Ronald G. Kukal

Thank you for your article concerning my ship. I am a survivor and the newsletter editor for the Liberty Veterans Association. All of us in our own different ways have been asking questions for years. Until these questions are answered, this will remain an open wound. When I was debriefed after the attack, I was told I had a top-secret crypto clearance (the highest given by our government) and to go away and never talk about it. For 20 years I tried to do that and it almost killed me. In 1985 I began to lose my vision. An optometrist told me I had a physical problem, not an eye problem. After the doctor ran tests, he walked in the room and said I should be dead. My blood pressure was 240/145, and he said it had been that way a long time to do the damage it did to my eyes. In 1987 I started to attend the Vet Center for group therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. My blood pressure dropped another 30 points after I was able to unload the rage and anger I was carrying. I was eventually confronted with the fact that it was my anger and asked what I wanted to do with it. After almost five years I came to an answer to that question for me. I decided to write a letter to every California (where I reside) and Kansas (where I grew up) congressman. I knew before that if I wanted something from politicians I would go back into depression from rejection. However, this time I only wanted to unload my anger. I wrote the condensed story for a display I created for the Navy Memorial in 1997 during our 30th reunion. I solicited input from my shipmates. Today I have more interest in my shipmates being able to cope with this than getting our government to deal with it. However, as you can see, the questions persist.

-- Donald W. Pageler

Read "Slaughter in the stacks."

I was amused to see that Stephanie Zacharek has been so completely consumed by Nicholson Baker's anti-librarian rantings.

I must say, though, that she is quite right in demonizing librarians. After all, how dare they be more concerned with preserving knowledge than with conserving the physical format in which it first arrived? The chutzpah!

But I have to take issue with her belief that no book could ever disintegrate into crumbs. She asks, "How many of us have actually seen or held a book that has been reduced to crumbs?" The answer I can give you is that I have. Many times. As a lover of the physical book, I am greatly saddened whenever a book crumbles. Yet, physical objects do deteriorate over time. This is the well-known scientific principle called entropy. Perhaps she's heard of it?

However much I may love books, newspapers, magazines, clay tablets and other physical formats, it is not feasible to preserve all of them forever. If Baker is able to afford to store enormous amounts of old newspaper, then more power to him. But for most libraries, the reality is that we do not have and cannot afford to have enormous warehouses devoted only to old newspapers. Money is a major issue for the vast majority of libraries, regardless of what Baker and Zacharek believe.

What microforms have given librarians is the ability to back up and more widely disseminate resources that would otherwise be unavailable to most people. Will microforms really turn out to last longer than paper? Various tests meant to simulate aging show that microforms should last for centuries in proper storage conditions. And it may also be said that no one will be completely sure until somebody looks up a copy of a Civil War-era New York Times on the 400th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination.

But none of this proves that maintaining old newspapers and books is more important than anything else to anyone other than Baker. And as for things that might be more important, how about reducing world poverty? What about working to relieve the tensions that lead to wars small and large? What about providing justice for everyone, not just the wealthy? Surely, these items must be worthy of some consideration.

-- James Feagin

I have been an antiquarian book dealer since 1984, and have to add to your review of Baker's argument. Many librarians seem to have this strange aesthetic regarding books: They can't stand the primary objects of their profession as they are and have done their best to deface, maim and strip books of their historical aura since the early 20th century.

In the secondary market for books, the ex libris copy is justifiably despised to begin with. It has usually been defaced with acidic Scotch tape and black rubber stamps on the edges and on the title page denoting a particular library's possession, and had its front-free endpaper thoroughly soiled with a card envelope. Although the dust jacket might be present, it is permanently marred with an unremovable catalog paste-down. Any collector wanting a "reading copy" would probably choose a book-club printing over a library copy.

This planned defacement of printed materials, interestingly enough, did not begin until the late 19th century. X-L copies from this late era often show only a subtle rubber stamp on the front paste-down, or perhaps a library bookplate. In the earliest part of the 20th century, we begin seeing Dewey decimal system numerals inked onto the spines of books (usually in white) and the widespread use of pocketed borrower cards.

It's obvious that this continuing war on the original integrity of the printed word is just being extended to new fields by its assigned keepers, who are usually long on the current literature of the profession and short on the essence of the bibliographic artifact.

-- Gary Culpepper

Please do not take Baker's book as truth itself. Your article could have used some more objectivity. The Society of American Archivists and other library and records management organizations have addressed these problems. They are also discussed and researched in MS and MLS archival programs. As an archivist, I know firsthand that newspapers do disintegrate and, yes, some microfilm copies (mostly pre-1970s) were not of the best quality. I also know that most archives and libraries are not funded very well. They are always short on staff (who are paid very little), money and, contrary to what the article claims, space. People are jumping on this topic without being fully informed. I say let's see how Baker is doing in a year or two with his warehouse of papers. Will he have the money to keep them? What about a staff of conservators? What about access? Will he supply reference help? What's the point of keeping them if no one can see them? Also, we must note that not all newspapers are worth keeping. Some do not give any unique information. Are these papers being kept at the expense of personal papers or organizational collections? Most people would argue that the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. are more important than newspaper articles about him. I am not dismissing the research value inherent in newspapers. Baker does bring up some reasonable concerns. I merely recommend that people use some common sense before buying all of Baker's notions.

-- Christine Crandall

Salon Staff

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