The Accidental Archivist
Continuing Education (CE) Course
Sunday, June 6, 2004
Special Libraries Association 2004 Annual Conference News Division
Moderator Jim Hunter of the Columbus Dispatch introduced the session by saying news librarians get a lot of things that they realize are history and important to keep, but no one else might think they're valuable.
Vincent Golden of the American Antiquarian Society began by telling the audience a little bit about the collection. There are over 2 million original issues of newspapers in climate controlled stacks, grown from just 550 items. They focus on newspapers published before 1877. There are many miles of shelves and space to expand the collection by 70%.
The founder's vision helped; he was a packrat, who saved everything. He began printing the Massachusetts Spy in the 1700s against the British. He fled Boston with his printing press to Worcester. After the war, he became one of the largest publishers in Massachusetts. He wanted to write the history of printing in America. He had kept one of everything he ever printed and collected as many American publications as possible. He thought the best way to document America is to collect everything that was printed. He founded the American Antiquarian Society and donated his collection to the institution.
"The sad history of newspaper survival" is how Vincent described this next section of his talk. He decided to contact newspaper publishers who have their own files. Clarence Brigham tried to identify every American newspaper in the 1800s in a book he published in 1947. Winifred Gregory also tried to identify the newspapers and published a guide in 1937. Vincent has found that many newspaper companies and newspapers no longer exist. The publisher files have also disappeared. Sometimes the names have changed, sometimes they've remained intact.
The Hartford Courant has a very similar name, kept an old printing press, and still has old newspapers.
When he contacts newspapers, he asks what kind of publisher files do they have, is there a staff person who knows lots about the paper, and several other questions to try to determine the existence and location of back issues of the newspaper.
Of the more than 300 newspaper offices he's contacted, fewer than 13.5% of those files that existed in the 1930s and 40s exist today. Originals were destroyed after filming and natural disasters destroyed others.
Wyane County startup in Lyons, NY. In 1977, just before the papers were to be shipped for filming, the building burned down.
Star Gazette Extra, Beardstown, IL, file back to 1860, the roof blew off the shed that stored them and the rain soaked the papers, so they threw them away.
Six papers in West Virginia lost their publisher's files.
One Scandanavian paper kept its own papers as well as the papers produced by many other Scandanavian immigrant groups in the US. The owner donated them to an academic library, which filmed them and got rid of the originals.
He has acquired some publishers files: newspaper in Pennsylvania back to 1808. After seven months of negotiations, he picked up 50 bound volumes of the paper. The founder agreed AAS was a good home, but the publisher was emotionally attached to them. Now have about 2400 volumes of this newspaper. Researchers are already asking for access.
Lots of only-known issues of newspapers. Both papers come from towns close to the north-south border of the Civil War. Extreme historical importance.
Nicholson Baker's Double Fold has chastised us for throwing away originals. "It is a rant," Vincent explains. He goes on to say it's true. Because of micorfilm, many places have not kept originals.
In 1939, the Library of Congress began filming papers to preserve against brittle paper. By 1962 they had filmed many of their papers and disposed of them. Vincent has purchased many papers the LoC used to own. LoC has some of the only known holdings of many newspapers. His dealer has some of these now. The dealer sells them for $1500 per issue. A dealer was selling portions of the second-best run of a newspaper on E-Bay. Vincent talked him out of splitting up the run that way and was able to buy the papers for about half of what the dealer would have gotten on E-Bay.
Vincent praised some of his dealers: they can be good allies, informing librarians of important things they might want to add to their collections. He wishes he had more money to buy things from the dealers.
Newspaper holdings are tricky: they aren't always up-to-date. One library might ditch a collection thinking another has it, but without actually checking with the other library, they could be completely incorrect.
A run of newspapers can take up 98% less space and weigh 95% less when filmed. Some places don't catch errors in microfilm very well. Sometimes, issues are missing. The film is unfocused or scratched. The image unreadable. Once the originals are tossed, that's it. There's no way to get them back.
Some curators don't know how to handle microfilm. One curator didn't make any service copies and instead used the master negative for the service copy. When rolls were damaged or lost, there was no way to get those pieces back because there was no master negative any more.
Vincent told us these things because he wants us to help spread the word about newspaper preservation. People need to know how to handle newspapers and microfilm. He acknowledges that the AAS has not done an adequate job spreading the word about proper care for newspapers, either.
Vincent shared some stories about the value of the newspaper collection at AAS, like someone doing research on the creator of tap dancing.
"Why do people want to use newspapers? I don't know and that's what's great about it," Vincent said.
Historians believe newspapers are a vital primary source for history. Many think using newspapers to learn about the events they're researching is very important.
He's hoping news librarians can take better control of the newspapers. Find funding to get papers filmed and share the microfilm; keep at least one copy off site. Store the film and newspapers in proper places.
Vincent identified some main issues in the collection and preservation of newspapers:
Acquisitions: keep track of what you need/want/are missing, not just what you have. Keep an eye on Ebay. Even single issues collected over time can build an important collection. Are you preserving the entire newspaper? Regional editions, too? Archiving the digital version? Advertisements? Columns? Don't just turn newspapers away; suggest an appropriate home for them. For papers before 1877, suggest the AAS.
Preservation: Carrie's going to talk about preservation, so he's not going to talk about it too much, but he did emphasize that people don't know much about storing newspapers. They can't take care of the newspapers, but they also don't want to give them up. Many will "love them to death"--"love them until they rot." To bind or not to bind: binding damages the newspapers. Keeping them flat in a box is, in Vincent's opinion, a better option. Disbinding volumes can cause more damage. Antiquarian binding is evidence; it could indicate who owned the volumes before; the history of the ownership of the paper could be quite important. Preservation microfilming is important; it preserves the content, if nothing else.
Organization: by date, by issue, but it requires space. Demand what you need and keep what you can get. If you're responisble for current materials, figure out what you'll need in a year and plan for 5-10 years of growth. Time and space are valuable commodities. Can you charge a fee for people to use your archives? Can you direct people to another library? How much space can you provide for using originals? Special holders for supporting bound volumes? Don't photocopy bound volumes flat on the copier.
Indexing has always been a big question: some volunteers have done detailed indexes. Microfilm scanners: Canon has a model that is less than $6000 now.
Campus newspaper got scanned because it covered a famous architect: Vanderbilt. The demand for those issues could have destroyed them. By filming and scanning the articles and putting them online, they've made them more accessible and preserved the older issue.
One library has a self-generating index. Every time someone comes in to look for information on someone, the librarians ask them to complete a card listing every page, date, and article where they've found info about that person. Then they drop the card into a card file. After thirty years, they have a significant catalog of names. "If you have the time, use your partons," Vincent suggests.
Vincent suggests starting small, build over time. A marriage/birth/death index could be extremely useful.
Richard Cox: Vandals in the Stacks responds to Baker: We don't need to save the originals because newspapers are not important or reliable. Just a few sample issues will do. "Cox needs to shut up and mind his own business," Vincent exclaims, "He's an archivist, not a newspaper historian. He needs to mind his own business."
The emphasis is on saving originals. "The newspapers do not speak for themselves. It is up to you to make sure your superiors know their value." We have microfilm now because someone thought the originals were valuable. "You are the forefront of our national heritage."
Vincent encourages use to donate our newspapers to institutions who can care for them if we can't care for them ourselves. It is our responsibility to care for them, even if it means giving them to someone else who can care for them.
We should convert those people who care a lot about newspapers into people who are properly saving and storing the papers.
It becomes clear during Vincent's presentation that he really enjoys saving newspapers and encouraging others to donate their collections to institutions that can preserve them and make them accessible for others.
Special Libraries Association 2004 Annual Conference
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Last Updated: 06/06/04