Around the turn of the century, librarians and paper chemists in the U.S., Germany and other countries began objecting seriously to the quality of paper that newspapers had been printed on for the previous 30 years. In the late 1920s, the New York Public Library and the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) began a research project to determine the extent and cause of the problem, and to look for solutions.
The newspaper article reprinted below reports work accomplished up to mid-1930. It appeared originally in the United States Daily, Vol. V, No. 86, June 12, 1930.
Perishable Newsprint as Peril to Record of Current Events
Periodic Reissue Printed on Permanent Paper Devised by Bureau of Standards to Avoid Destruction Faced by Publications of 1870-1927By B. W. Scribner
Division of Organic and Fibrous Materials,
National Bureau of Standards
The publication of special library newspaper editions printed on permanent paper has directed increased attention to the preservation of newspaper records.
The Bureau of Standards is cooperating in the development of the special papers required for this purpose, and in finding means of preserving past issues printed on impermanent paper.
Newspaper records are particularly valuable, as they are probably the most authentic source of information on occurrences and customs current at the time of issue of the newspapers. In spite of their great historical value, however, such records, covering a period of from 1870 to 1927, are in danger of total extinction due to the perishable nature of the paper on which they are printed.
Newspapers of that period are printed on paper containing ground wood fibers which, as the term implies, are crude fibers containing the impurities associated with them in the wood. Owing to these impurities such fibers have a relatively short life and cause rapid deterioration of paper containing them.
As the chief function of newspapers is to inform the public in general immediately of current happenings, the present type of newsprint paper was developed to meet the demand that the newspapers be made so inexpensive that they would be available to everybody.
To about the year 1865, newspapers, like other publications, were printed on papers composed of chemically-refined cotton or linen fibers from rags. Such paper was necessarily quite expensive.
An intensive search for less expensive fibers suitable for printed matter was initiated early in the Nineteenth Century. This resulted in development of processes for utilizing cheap and abundant materials such as straws and woods.
Wood is ideally adapted for mass production, in an inexpensive way, of fibers particularly well suited to rapid printing processes. Introduction of the use of wood paper fibers laid the foundation for the vast paper industry we have today.
The Bureau's systematic study of old newspapers reflects the developments of the Nineteenth Century in the use of new materials, and brings to light their effect on the deterioration of newspapers. The survey was made possible through the cooperation of the New York Public Library which permitted the use of its extensive files for the purpose.
Issues of nineteen different newspapers, dating from 1830 to 1895, were examined. Sufficient number of determinations of the kind of fibers present were made to locate the various transitions in their time of usage.
It was found that the papers composed entirely of rag fibers, chemically purified, that were used until 1865, are generally in good condition. At this time the transition to other sources of fibers began.
The papers from 1865 to 1870 are generally composed of chemically-refined fibers from rags, wood, straw, and esparto grass, usually mixed. Like the rag-fiber papers, they are generally in good condition.
Starting with 1873, the general use of the crude ground wood fibers began, and its effect on the permanency of the papers is at once apparent. The old papers from this time on are appreciably deteriorated, although up to 1890 the ground wood fibers are mixed with the chemically-purified fibers mentioned.
The use of the modern newsprint paper, composed of a mixture of ground wood and chemical sulphite wood fibers, became common around 1890. Such papers deteriorate rapidly, and after a few years crumble to pieces with little handling.
Aside from the historical value of these results as related to the preservation of newspapers, they are of importance in other respects. They give additional evidence of the necessity of using purified fibers if permanence is a consideration, and are a further indication that the manner of processing fibers, and not their source, is the important factor affecting their permanence.
The very evident deterioration of newspapers dating from 1870 has spurred efforts of librarians to find remedial measures for their preservation. Covering the newspaper sheets with various transparent materials, such as viscose sheets and lacquers, and with varnishes, has been tried; but apparently the most effective treatment known is the use of strong Japanese tissue paper pasted on the sheets with starch.
Tests of newspapers so treated indicated that their life would be greatly lengthened. This accords with the experience of libraries with this preservative measure.
But that any treatment of this nature will make the papers permanent is doubtful. Realizing this, the movement to print the special library editions on permanent paper was initiated several years ago by librarians and others concerned with the preservation of newspapers.
Through the cooperative efforts of the several parties interested, this plan was successfully inaugurated in 1927, the first reissue of a permanent newspaper being made in that year by the New York Times. The United States Daily began to reissue a permanent edition in the same year, and a number of other publishers have followed suit.
The redevelopment of a paper composed entirely of chemically-purified fibers was necessary. This was successfully accomplished by the use of fibers from cotton rags.
For this purpose a development of a paper made from highly-purified wood fibers also has apparently been successfully accomplished.
Our newspaper records, then, up to 1870 and since 1927, appear to be taken care of adequately. But the gap between these years must be filled by some other measures.
The best known means--one that is being urged--is to photostat the newspaper printings of that period on permanent paper. Properly made photostat prints are considered as permanent as the paper bearing them.