The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 24, Number 4
Dec 2000

"Preserving" Newspapers

by Ellen McCrady

Nicholson Baker published an article in the July 24 New Yorker, called "Deadline," about how libraries sell, destroy or discard newspapers after microfilming them, even if they are the last copy in existence, and even if the microfilm is incomplete or unreadable. The response from book lovers and the preservation community, in publications, e-mails and the Conservation DistList, was unprecedented. I collected 9 comments (10 including my own) during October and November:

1. Guild of Book Workers Newsletter, Oct. 2000, p. 4, "Disappearing Newspapers."

Nicholson Baker, the same person who did an exposé of the dumping of books at the San Francisco Public Library, has now raised an alarm about the disappearance of original series of newspapers from libraries across the country, including our national repository, the Library of Congress. This report, "Deadline" (The New Yorker, 7/24/00), should be required reading for all librarians, historians, and anyone who cares about the loss of the irreplaceable information to be found in scores of important and novel newspapers from the past.... His article should serve as a wakeup call to many institutions where originals still reside.

2. Winston Tabb, Associate Librarian for Library Services at the Library of Congress, posted a comment on the article October 6, saying, in part,

...In asserting that newsprint will last indefinitely, Mr. Baker is overlooking several decades of scientific research that contradicts the linchpin of his argument. Library of Congress experts shared that information, as well as more recent unpublished scientific data, with Mr. Baker when he visited the Library in December 1998....

Mr. Baker would have your readers believe that the Library of Congress, in a clandestine manner, routinely discarded perfectly useable newspaper volumes in a zealous search for shelf space. This is both ridiculous and insulting. Librarians must make decisions every day about how best to acquire, preserve and make permanently accessible the record of human creativity; but they cannot keep everything, or keep everything in its original "container." For example, the Library of Congress retains all newspapers in hard copy from the 17th and 18th centuries....

Even though the Library of Congress and other libraries do not have the luxury of preserving and storing hundreds of thousands of rapidly deteriorating newspapers in their original format, we welcome help from people like Nicholson Baker who apparently can afford to do so.

3. I replied to Winston Tabb's posting October 14. Although I admire and respect Mr. Tabb, on this point I had to differ.

I think Winston Tabb doesn't believe Nicholson Baker when he says the pages in [some of] the bound newspaper volumes he handled were white and strong. I believe him. One has to be careful about applying research to real-life situations. I tried to explain this in the Abbey Newsletter twice: "Keeping Newsprint Fresh and White," p. 49, April 1987, a brief article quoting Bill Blackbeard, who understands newsprint; and "Pedigree Comics," by Pat Kochanek, p. 99-101, Nov. 1994, in which the author describes the pristine condition of the "Mile-High Collection" of comics from the 1920s and 1930s.

It is not generally recognized that newsprint is vulnerable to a different set of stresses than other kinds of paper. This means that storage conditions that eliminate those stresses can prolong the life of newsprint almost indefinitely. Mr. Blackbeard described them: "Any publication printed on standard quality newsprint from 1870 through at least 1970 (popular use of newsprint starting in the 1860s) will remain exactly as fresh and white (or in some cases, of course, fresh and grayish) as the day it went through the presses so long as it is kept secure from a) prolonged exposure to sunlight (i.e., for days on end); 2) temperature elevations sustained above 60°-70°F (as in overheated rooms or in structures open to high summer heat regularly); 3) high prolonged humidity combined with heat (a reasonable amount of moisture combined with cool air seems to do no harm); and 4) heavy continued and careless reading or referral use of the publication...."

I heard that some of the Europeans at one of the IFLA conferences [1987] were shocked at our practice of discarding serials after the spines were cut off for microfilming....

4. Amy McCrory (, who works with the Blackbeard Collection at Ohio State University, called October 17. I gave her the reference to the Bukovsky paper from Restaurator which described accelerated aging of newsprint with light rather than heat. Newsprint lost a great deal of strength under light stress, even when it had been previously deacidified.

Ms. McCrory faxed me a copy of a 1988 article from the Abbey Newsletter, which she had found on the Internet: "Newspaper Preservation Around the World," from vol. 12 #1, Jan. 1988. This was based on Susan Swartzburg's 28-page report of the August 1987 meeting in London, "International Symposium on Newspaper Preservation and Access."

The symposium was sponsored by IFLA's Working Group on Newspapers, which was surveying preservation policies of newspaper collections worldwide.

Many of those present were concerned about the Preussischer Kulturbesitz's policy of sending original newspapers out on interlibrary loan. At the Bibliothèque Nationale, some restoration is done before filming and some afterward, and the papers are bound when possible. Johann Mannerheim (Royal Library, Sweden) did not believe that microforms replace originals and maintained that originals should be preserved for safety. In Great Britain, the library retains an original deposit copy, wrapped in acid-free paper and stored flat. In Hungary, the archival masters are stored in air conditioned facilities; papers are repaired before filming when necessary; they are deacidified and strengthened. In Japan, each publisher sends the library an edition printed on special paper, on one side only, for quality of microfilm image.

Two years later (May 22-24, 1989), the Library of Congress and IFLA held an international symposium in Washington, DC, on "Managing the Preservation of Serial Literature." At this conference, Margaret Child (Smithsonian Libraries) and Andrew B. Phillips (British Library) discussed the topic, "Must Publications be Preserved in Original Format?" and David Clements was the discussion leader. Margaret Child's position was "Not necessarily," and Andrew Phillips's reply was "Yes, publications must be preserved in original format, especially newspapers...."

5. Roy Moxham (London) posted his comments on October 17.

I read the letter to The New Yorker written by Winston Tabb of the Library of Congress, with some concern. It seems to me that Nicholson Baker should be congratulated, not censured, for bringing important issues to our attention. In his original article Nicholson Baker did not assert that all newsprint will last indefinitely, but that it is "often surprisingly well preserved." Many of us would agree with that. To back up his argument, the article reproduced rare color-printed newsprint in excellent condition that was being de-accessioned.

Nicholson Baker then made two important, but often overlooked, observations about microfilmed material which is being de-accessioned:

Much old microfilm is of extremely poor quality.

Much color material has only been microfilmed in black and white.

I would also add that many newspapers ran into several different editions, but often only one has been microfilmed.

The University of London <> will be holding a conference, "Do we want to keep our newspapers?" 12-13 March 2001 to consider these issues. I hope preservation professionals will contribute to a constructive debate.

6. Colin Webb, Director of the Preservation Services Branch of the National Library of Australia, posted his comments on October 19:

...I must say that Mr. Baker's article struck a responsive chord. It raises issues that are most important for us to discuss and learn from.

Trained as firm believers in the "newsprint won't wait" school, at the National Library of Australia we have often been dismayed to see the results of rapid deterioration, but just as often we've been surprised to see 100 year old issues that were just fine. Our conclusion has been that newsprint degrades at variable rates, and that it is worth copying the information on it to a more stable medium.

At the same time, we've seen some great microfilm, but we've also seen some that was shocking—and a whole lot in-between.... We have tried to address quality concerns by raising the standard of filming, project design, specifications and project management, and we have some a long way in the past 10-15 years in this country. But I'm certain we all hold significant collections of film that are quite inadequate, simply because most institutions do not have the resources to check thoroughly for errors in the film they either produce or purchase from someone else....

While the article seems unfair at a number of points—some of them covered in Winston Tabb's letter—there are things here that we need to listen to and consider, things that are relevant to preservation management, at least in Australia.

Whether or not it is a fair basis for criticism, it has been difficult to manage the expectations that have arisen (created and nursed along by both the imaging industry and by our own profession at times) that copying is the only cost-effective way of preserving newspapers.

Our preservation profession has sometimes found it easier to enlist support by telling half-truths (probably nine-tenth truths). We did it with environmental conditions for storing collections, we probably did it with accelerated aging, and it looks like we might have done it with microfilming. We can see the same phenomenon with digitization, although the "digitization=preservation" lobby is largely coming from outside the preservation profession.

Managers with too much to do, "80/20" agendas, and a host of new pressures piling up, tend to simplify the evidence, look for the broad approach, and aren't very interested in what look like redundant solutions. As preservation managers we fall for this, and so do our senior executives. Who wants to hear that you might need to store newspapers in the dark, taking up ever increasing space, quite possibly in controlled conditions, and also microfilm them to give users access? And to keep three generations of the microfilm, stored in very high quality conditions?

We're fortunate here—while we've invested heavily in microfilming (and are about to in digitization), so far there has not been a strong push to destroy newspapers. Although practices vary, guillotining spines to improve the speed or ease of copying is not considered acceptable practice here for rare material. To the contrary, we have a National Plan for Newspapers (the NPLAN), which tries to address these issues in a sensible way. The basic aims of the NPLAN include the preservation of at least one paper copy of every newspaper issued in the country, preferably in the State or Territory in which it was published, or by the National Library if the title has national coverage.

7. Donald Farren, retired administrator of special collections, was at the 1989 conference at the Library of Congress, "Managing the Preservation of Serial Literature: An International Symposium." He relates the events of that conference in his own posting of October 22.

...Most of the participants in the conference from abroad were representatives of their national library, who were expected, as leaders in their countries, to disseminate the deliberations of the conference. Following are one man's memories of that event.

In my naive way I initially thought that the conference was a forum for examining the issues of preserving and conserving newspapers, and in fact, to lend an appearance of objectivity to the proceedings, the organizers commissioned a paper that was circulated to conference participants that favored the conservation of newspapers in their original form. That thankless job had been assigned to an author who had not been able to really think through the issues, as a result of which the author's defense of conserving original artifacts was based chiefly on sentimental grounds rather than on an understanding of the intellectual significance of artifacts per se. Thus the real agenda of the conference soon became apparent—namely getting the conferees to endorse the doctrine that the only way of "saving newspapers" was to microfilm them. (I lost my initial naiveté when I learned that the organizers of the conference had drafted a statement of the resolutions of the conference in that vein before it had begun.)

In the face of the formidable pressure to endorse a policy of saving newspapers by chipping, filming, and tossing them, I advanced the modest proposal that national libraries should assume the responsibility (distributed countrywide as appropriate) to Conserve in Original Form at Least One Copy of Every Newspaper. At the time, the only person at the conference who publicly supported my proposal was Randy Silverman, and the charge against my proposal, on the grounds of impracticality (as if it was practical to microfilm everything without saving the evidence and the content borne by at least one original copy) was led by (since I am naming names) one Margaret Child, who was then responsible for promoting preservation microfilming for the National Endowment for the Humanities, who as such—as a gateway to funding, swung a lot of weight. (Ms. Child was, I remember, a staunch opponent. She declared that she had researched her dissertation by reading newspapers on microfilm and that the experience hadn't ruined her eyes, as if the inconvenience of reading microfilm was an issue central, rather than peripheral, to conservation and preservation policy.) The result of my making a proposal to conserve was that the proposal was taken under advisement and thereafter not again seriously considered.

Despite the inevitability of an endorsement of mass microfilming, the conference had its points, indeed poignant moments. I remember one representative of the national library of a developing country commenting that microfilming was all well and good but that in her country they did not have a reliable enough source of electricity to they could count on machines of any kind, including microfilm readers, functioning.

As Nicholson Baker's piece suggests, time will tell, and public opinion will decide, which policy—selective (at least) conservation or mass microfilming—is the wisest.

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