Since the early 1980's, the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities have collaborated in a unique partnership to fund and manage the United States Newspaper Program, a highly successful effort to locate, catalog, and preserve newspapers published throughout the United States, providing continued access for scholars and researchers to the "first draft" of U.S. history as recorded in the press. Projects established and funded in each state and territory survey every possible repository in the attempt to locate extant issues of every newspaper; inventory and catalog those titles in national database; and preserve endangered files on microfilm following national and international preservation standards.
The fragility of newsprint should be obvious to anyone who, having failed to inform either the delivery service or an accommodating neighbor, returns from a short vacation to find the news of the past few days rapidly deteriorating on the front stoop. Even a half-day in bright sun will discolor the front page, and touch will betray the imminent disintegration of the paper. We think little of it beyond the immediate bother. We all, readers and publishers alike, appreciate that in an age when news is considered to be old often before ink can dry on the page, newsprint remains a remarkably efficient, portable, inexpensive, and - most important - replaceable media for distribution. The daily news is intended to be read and thrown away or, we hope, recycled. Newsprint is designed to disappear, and to be replaced. Only the latest news is, after all, considered "newsworthy."
For social historians, no other published record captures the day-to-day life of a community and the thoughts and habits of its citizens better than the local newspaper, and the loss of even an issue or two can be a break in understanding and interpreting the chain of events. No matter how great the city or how powerful its leading men and women, beneath the headlines can be found the ordinary daily record of the community's social structure, politics, health, cultural life, commerce, and sport. Newspapers are the single most important source for understanding the development of ethnic communities throughout the United States, and too often serve as the only source for understanding the development of the nation's small towns and regions. And for those of us who wish to understand our own family histories, newspapers are a rich source not only for the vital facts about our forbears, but also give us a glimpse of the way they lived; what they shopped for; what medicines they took; how they were entertained; what they celebrated; and what they feared. For historians, archivists, and researchers, though, the commercial advantages of newsprint quickly become a liability.
Until the mid-1800's, newspapers in the United States were published on paper made using cotton rag fiber. Our libraries and archives hold many fine examples of newspapers dating from the early eighteenth century that have survived in excellent condition and will, if properly handled and cared for, survive for generations to come. Production of rag paper was (and remains) and expensive process, however; and as the 19th century progressed, technology and increased literacy combined to encourage cheaper production of paper. The boom in publishing in the latter half of the 19th century was made possible in great part by the invention of cheap paper.
By the 1880's most mass market publications were being published on paper that replaced the more expensive rag content with untreated ground wood fibers, and 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 speed the production of acids that weaken the paper. Excessive heat and dryness will embrittle the paper. 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 the high cost and effort required can be justified only for very special items in a collection of high intrinsic value. Libraries, archives, and research collections that seek to provide continued access to large newspaper collections will opt to preserve the intellectual content of the publications through reformatting, usually by preservation microfilming.
The Library of Congress and New York Public Library have been microfilming newspapers since the late 1930's. The life-expectancy of early film, however, was less than a generation. More recent developments in film stability and environmental controls, combined with refinements in high-resolution photographic equipment, provide assurance that microfilm produced, processed, and stored in adherence to national and international standards will serve researchers well into the next millennium and beyond. Appropriate bibliographic control is an essential component to the preservation effort. Accurate and authoritative citations assure that preserved material can be accessed, and that costly duplication of preservation efforts can be avoided. Comprehensive bibliographic information allows the researcher to determine where a title is held, what issues are available or missing, and any unique identifying elements such as editions or title changes. Through a coordinated effort, the USNP has been able to assure that all appropriate standards and practices are employed in accomplishing the mission of the program. In addition, by training and equipping staff in each state, there is assurance that preservation activities can continue beyond the term of the grant-funded project.
The United States Newspaper Project (USNP) has supported projects in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. USNP projects are organized as cooperative efforts within each state, generally with one agency serving as the project manager. Project staff inventory collections in public libraries, courthouses, newspaper offices, historical museums, college and university libraries, archives, and private collections. Detailed records of holdings enable states and institutions to fill gaps and complete runs from holdings scattered throughout a state or in other states. The records will also assist researchers in locating the exact issues they wish to search. Bibliographic and holdings records are entered into a national database maintained by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and accessible throughout the world via OCLC's WorldCat service, available through most libraries and through the World Wide Web. Microfilm copies of newspapers are available to researchers anywhere in the country through interlibrary loan. Current projections call for funded activity under the USNP to be completed by 2006, at which time project staff will have cataloged nearly 200,000 newspaper titles and produced microfilm of approximately 60 million pages of newsprint.
While the work of USNP projects 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. In a few states, legislation mandating deposit of newspapers provides some assurance that a program to assure continued access for research will be maintained. In most states, however, that assurance will be possible only through the continued cooperative effort of archivists, librarians, historians, and genealogists, all of whom know too well the challenge they face.
For technical information on microfilming newspapers see USNP Preservation Microfilming Guidelines.
For additional reading about USNP state projects click here.
For additional information on preservation of newspapers see Preserving Newspapers.