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Preserving Newspapers


Of the thousands of newspapers published in the United States each day, most eventually find their way into trash bins, under litter boxes, into bird cages, or, hopefully, into recycling containers. The perception persists that yesterday's news is no news at all. For librarians and archivists, however, that perception presents a tremendous challenge. As a resource for scholars and researchers, no form of publication captures the day-to-day life of a community and its citizens better than the local newspaper. Under the headlines proclaiming great events are editorials, human interest stories, society news, sports reporting, advice columns, obituaries, and business reports that, as a whole, tell the life story of the communities in which those great events take place and the lives they affect. Even in the most extreme instances, when the editorial content of the newspaper reflects journalism at its most outrageous, the ordinary details of daily life can still be found and appreciated.

As a primary source for local history information, all newspapers - metropolitan dailies, suburban papers, rural weeklies, and the rich ethnic press - are worthy of retention and preservation. Yet the effort required, due both to the number of papers published and to the quality of the paper on which they are printed, is tremendous.

Prior to the mid-1800's, newspapers were printed on paper made using cotton rag fiber. Many of these newspapers, even dating from the early eighteenth century, survive in excellent condition and will, if properly handled and cared for, survive for generations to come. Production of rag paper was a relatively expensive process, however, and as the nineteenth century progressed, technology and increasing literacy combined to encourage cheaper production of paper.

By the 1880's most newspapers and other mass market publications were being published on paper that was produced using a manufacturing technique that substituted untreated ground wood fibers for more expensive rag content, and included additional substances to prevent discoloration and decrease porosity. Paper made using this process carries within itself reactive agents that will speed its deterioration. Excessive moisture will cause the lignins and other impurities present in the newsprint to produce acids which weaken the paper. On the other hand, excessive heat and dryness will contribute to the paper's brittleness. While the use of wood pulp allowed production of a more economical medium for publication, it also guaranteed the instability of that medium over time. The cheapest and least stable form of this paper is newsprint. In addition to its obvious fragility, today's newsprint is especially susceptible to damage caused by heat, light, dampness and airborne pollutants.

Conservators have developed a range of treatments and techniques that stabilize and in some cases even strengthen paper made from ground wood pulp, but due to high costs the application of these techniques is normally restricted to very special items in a collection that has high intrinsic value. For libraries, archives, and historical societies that hope to allow continued use of larger collections, the most economical option is to preserve the intellectual content of the publications through reformatting.

Preservation Microfilming of Newspapers

The first newspaper to be microfilmed was the London Evening News, filmed in 1853 to demonstrate the viability of microfilming techniques. As early as the 1930's, microphotography was recommended as a means of preserving the information available in newspapers, however, the life-expectancy of film at the time was less than a generation. By the end of that decade both the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library had established full-fledged microfilming programs. Continuing experimentation and research in film stability and environment for storage of film, combined with refinements in high-resolution photographic equipment, provide assurance that microfilm produced, processed, and stored in adherence to national and international standards remains an economical and reliable means of preserving access to newspapers.

Anyone considering a preservation microfilming project should consult the RLG Preservation Microfilming Handbook.¹ General requirements and recommendations for microfilming newspapers can be found in the standard ANSI/AIIM MS-111, Recommended Practice for Microfilming Printed Newspapers on 35mm Roll Microfilm

When microfilming is selected as a means of preservation, bibliographic databases, union lists, and microfilm publishers' catalogs should be searched to discover whether the material to be filmed is already available in acceptable microform from other sources, thus avoiding duplication and potential copyright concerns. Once a title is selected for filming, every effort should be made to compile to most complete run in the best condition. Bibliographic resources that provide holdings information should be consulted to obtain needed issues to complete the run.

As any experienced researcher will confirm, nothing is more frustrating than to be forced to use poorly produced microfilm. Yet properly produced microfilm of newspapers is often easier and more satisfying to use for research than large, unwieldy bound volumes of newsprint. In order to insure that the preserved materials will indeed be useful, it would be helpful for those organizing the materials to see the task as essentially an editorial function, preparing and organizing text for re-publication in another format.

Special attention should be paid to organizing the newspaper file and preparing bibliographic identification and information targets to be filmed with the newspaper. Information about missing issues, title changes, and special editions, if filmed as information targets at the beginning of each reel, will greatly assist researchers.

Current preservation guidelines and recommendations call for production of a camera, or "master," negative to be stored in a secure, environmentally controlled facility, preferably in a location separate from that in which the collection is housed; and the production of an intermediate, or "printing" negative to be used for production of service positives (user copies). The intermediate negative should also be stored in an environmentally controlled, secure location. Ideally, the master negative should only be used if all other surviving generations are destroyed. Care should be taken to assure that all generations of film are stored in alkaline, non- photoreactive boxes, and that machines used for reading and printing from the film are kept clean and are properly maintained.

If contracting for microfilming services, care should be taken to assure that the laboratory has experience in preservation microfilming projects. Since it is most likely that materials will not be available for re-filming in the future, any steps taken to insure that the work to be done meets all current standards will not be wasted.

Conservation Treatment of Newspapers

Newspaper issues or pages may require conservation treatment in order to preserve them as intrinsic artifacts, or for research or exhibit purposes. Conservation treatment should be referred to a professional paper conservator, since any treatment process can entail risk to both the material and the personnel involved. Information on selecting a conservator may be found in the brochure Guidelines for Selecting a Conservator³, available from the American Institute for Conservation. The conservation treatment selected will depend upon the characteristics of the individual item and its condition; testing will be done before beginning the treatment process. Acidic newsprint often requires deacidification and the deposit of an alkaline buffer (a.k.a. alkalization) to stabilize the paper. Repairs to the paper may be done using Japanese paper and wheat paste or heat-set tissue; pressure sensitive adhesive tapes are not recommended. It is important to use good quality materials that will hold up over time. In order to provide support for a fragile sheet and permit safer handing, a deacidified newspaper page can be stored or encapsulated in a polyester film sleeve or folder. More information on encapsulation can be found in Encapsulation in Polyester Film Using Double-Sided Tape.4 It is preferable to avoid encapsulating newspapers which have not been deacidified. However, if newsprint is acidic and extreme fragility indicates the need for encapsulation, an alkaline buffered sheet should be placed behind the newspaper whenever possible.

Cellulose acetate lamination is not recommended for newsprint, especially for those newspapers which have intrinsic value. Lamination can extend the time over which newsprint can be actively handled, but it will also damage the paper, and is not fully reversible.

Preserving Newspaper Clippings By Preservation Photocopying

While every reference librarian can attest to the usefulness of clipping files, those fading bits of paper constitute a preservation challenge. Many libraries and archives have opted to convert their newspaper clipping files to microfilm, but that option is open to debate, particularly when the newspaper itself has been preserved on film.

For current newspaper articles, preservation photocopying of material is recommended as a substitute for clipping files. Not only is the ease of access that clipping files have always provided maintained, but future reformatting of articles into digital form will be greatly facilitated by this option. Additional reformatting information can be found in Guidelines for Preservation Photocopying.5

Digitization of Newspapers on Microfilm

The rapid development of electronic imaging and storage technologies holds great promise for enhancing access to all types of research materials, including newspapers. As implied above, for example, the highly labor-intensive task of newspaper indexing can be accomplished with remarkable efficiency and savings by conversion of text into electronic form. Because of the size of most newspaper pages and their brittleness, the direct use of electronic imaging as a tool for newspaper reformatting is still far from a practical reality. Cost considerations may further prevent it from becoming a widely-available option. It should also be emphasized that digitization, for a wide variety of technical problems, is not generally accepted as a preservation technique.

Scanning from microfilm, however, involves proven technology and can be done with off-the-shelf equipment for which all requisite standards exist. Combining the two technologies into a hybrid approach provides assurance that the information will be preserved on microfilm while access capabilities are enhanced, and even created, through digitization.

It should be noted here that while many current newspapers are widely available in electronic form, either via the World Wide Web or in CD-ROM format, the issue of completeness should concern anyone who would use these as a surrogate for the newsprint edition. With only a few exceptions, the newspapers available in electronic form do not always include the classified ads, legal and death notices, and other local features historians and researchers find so important. Many do not include photographs and advertising sections. If these products are allowed to serve in libraries and archives as a substitute for the newspaper itself, then much of what is characteristic of newspapers as a tool for research is lost.


While microfilming remains as the most reliable means of preserving the intellectual content of newspapers, many institutions will need to service and store newsprint for long periods of time prior to filming and, in some cases, may wish to store original copies on a permanent basis. Binding has been a frequently used method for organizing and storing newspaper files for many decades, but it is not recommended. Apart from the expense, binding of newspapers is often damaging to the text; creates unwieldy volumes that are difficult to handle properly; and even encourages some institutions to shelve volumes vertically, which can cause the text block to pull away from the binding. Oversize folio volumes should be stored flat.


If retrospective files of newspapers will be used fairly frequently, the recommended method is to store the papers flat in boxes, with lids the same depth as the base. While buffered custom boxes made to fit each newspaper file would be ideal, standard sizes (18 x 24 x 2.5 inches or 24 x 30 x 2.5 inches) offered by several suppliers should be adequate for most newspaper files. Inserts can be made from buffered card to customize the interior size of the box to that of the newspaper. Prior to boxing, the newspapers should be stacked neatly, organized in chronological sequence and a finding aid should be prepared that lists the titles and issues held, to prevent excessive handling of the issues themselves. The box label should contain the title(s) and range of dates contained in the box, with a list of missing issues attached to the inside of the box lid for easy reference. The boxes will provide overall support and will protect the newspapers from light, dust, and insects while allowing easy access.


For files that will be used less frequently, flat storage of newspapers bundled and wrapped in a sturdy alkaline paper is sufficient. Because the bundles must be reassembled and retied after each use, this option is often used for large collections of original copy that have been microfilmed, and thus use can be restricted to those instances when only the original can provide the needed information (e.g., photographs). Often, when previously-bound newspapers have been disbound and the originals are kept after filming , the binding boards are kept and used as an extra support outside the alkaline paper-wrapped bundle, with an additional wrapping of ordinary kraft paper as an outer protection. Alkaline buffered corrugated boards cut slightly larger than the newspaper may be substituted for the binding boards. For tying the bundles, select a flat cord and be careful that the cord cannot cut into the newspapers. Once again, a list of titles and issues held should be prepared, and bundles should be identified appropriately to avoid excessive handling. (In both storage instances, placing alkaline tissue paper over color pages can alleviate bleed-through onto adjoining pages.)

Some experimentation is being carried out with polyethylene wrappings, including poly-sealing or shrink-wrapping. At the time of this writing, there is not sufficient evidence that such storage options justify the cost. A major concern is that re-sealing would be required each time an issue is retrieved.

Storage Environment

It is understood that libraries and historical societies throughout the U.S. are often housed in buildings that do not easily approximate current recommended standards for storage of library materials. Even when conditions are not ideal, basic steps can be taken in nearly any facility to better protect the materials stored there. The simplest method, and most often overlooked, is good housekeeping. Choose storage locations which minimize exposure of newspapers to dampness, heat, air pollutants, dust, insects and vermin. Store the newspapers above the floor, to avoid damage from unexpected water. Newspaper collections may suffer as much from lack of care as from intentional damage (clipping or mutilation). Information and references for storage of microfilm can be found in RLG Preservation Microfilming Handbook, noted above.

Bibliographic Control

While often overlooked as a preservation concern, appropriate bibliographic control is an essential component to the success of any newspaper preservation program. Complete citations assure that preserved material can be accessed by users, and that the costly duplication of preservation efforts can be avoided by others attempting to do the same work. Comprehensive bibliographic information enables one to determine who holds a given title and what issues are available or missing, as well as any comments concerning supplements, editions, or title changes. Unfortunately, few libraries, and fewer local historical societies and archives, have been able to maintain consistent bibliographic control over their newspaper collections. Any attempt at preserving newspapers without also providing bibliographic control will only exacerbate the problem, as users of poorly prepared newspaper microfilm will attest.

The United States Newspaper Program

Since the early 1980's, the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities have been directing a massive nationwide effort to preserve the rich mix of detail, opinion, criticism, fact, and folly that survives on the pages of newspapers throughout the country. The United States Newspaper Program (USNP) is a cooperative national effort to locate, catalog, preserve on microfilm, and make available to researchers newspapers published in the United States from the eighteenth century to the present.

Supported by funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Division of Preservation and Access, and with technical support and project management provided by the Library of Congress Preservation Directorate, projects in each of the fifty states and the United States Trust Territories seek out and survey newspaper collections. Project staff catalog the collections, and contribute machine-readable bibliographic and holdings records to the USNP National Union List, which is available throughout the world via the OCLC Online Computer Library Center's WorldCat service. Project staff also organize, select, and prepare appropriate files for preservation microfilming, which is carried out in accordance with national and international preservation standards and procedures.

USNP projects are organized as cooperative efforts within each state, generally with one agency serving as the lead. Project staff survey libraries, courthouses, newspaper offices, historical agencies, archives, and private collections to locate and inventory newspaper files. To support this activity, NEH expects to continue its funding for the USNP into the first decade of the 21st century, at which time it is estimated that projects will have cataloged some 200,000 newspaper titles found in more than 500,000 locations.

While the work of USNP project in each state will provide a basis for continuing newspaper preservation efforts, the program will ultimately convert only a percentage of deteriorating newsprint to microfilm. From the beginning, it has been the intent of program planners and managers that the continued effort must be decentralized in order to remain effective. It is only logical that access to a local newspaper should be maintained in the region where it is published, for it is there that it will have the greatest relevance for research. In some states, legislation mandating deposit of newspapers containing legal notices provides some assurance that titles will be maintained. Local and state libraries, historical societies, archives, court offices, and newspaper publishers have all shared a role in saving retrospective files of newspapers; yet all face the problem of attempting to maintain access to those collections as the paper itself deteriorates.


1. Elkington, Nancy E., RLG Preservation Microfilming Handbook. Mountain View, CA: Research Libraries Group, 1992.

2. Recommended Practice for Microfilming Printed Newspapers on 35mm Microfilm. ANSI/AIIM MS11-1994. Silver Spring, Md.: Association for Information and Image Management, 1994. (Available from AIIM at: 1100 Wayne Ave., Suite 1100, Silver Spring, MD 20910)

3. Guidelines for Selecting a Conservator. [Brochure] Washington, DC: American Institute for Conservation, 1991. (Available from AIC at: 1156 15th St., NW., Suite 320, Washington, DC 20005-1714 Phone: (202) 452-9545

4. Encapsulation in Polyester Film Using Double-Sided Tape. Technical Leaflet. Andover, Mass.: Northeast Document Conservation Center, 1992. (Available from NEDCC at: 100 Brickstone Square, Andover, MA 01810-1494)

5. Guidelines for Preservation Photocopying. Library Resources & Technical Services38(3):288-292 (July 1994)

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