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Interim Collection Policy for Newspapers

I. Historical Background

The long-standing model of acquisition and retention of newspapers at UIUC was well suited to a major research library with a generously funded acquisitions budget, ample staff, and relatively minor space constraints. For decades we maintained hundreds of current subscriptions, wrapped or bound the issues after 3-6 months on the shelf, and either stored them in the Newspaper Room (later the Newspaper Library) in roller-shelving units or on open shelves, or we sent them to a basement, alcove, attic, or other available nook or cranny. Eventually, as storage space became a more pressing concern, we often chose to maintain dual subscriptions to both newsprint and microfilm for important titles so that we could discard the newsprint after the microfilm had been received. When the collections budget began shrinking, these dual subscriptions became prohibitively expensive, and we faced the choice between newsprint and microfilm. In many instances we elected to continue to receive newsprint since the microfilm subscription did not offer coverage of current issues. At the same time storage problems reached critical proportions as we accumulated stacks upon stacks of current newsprint. Finally, we reached a point where cutting back on dual print/film subscriptions did not compensate for our shrinking collections budget, and we began reducing the number of titles we receive in any format.

These changes took place over the longue durée of the twentieth century. In contrast, the digital revolution represents rupture and discontinuity with the circumstances and forces that drove our collection policy in the preceding hundred years. No other genre of electronic text has achieved the ubiquity or level of acceptance as that of online newspapers, which is starkly reflected in the dwindling number of readers of current print newspapers in the Library. Meanwhile subscriptions to online services have placed further strain on our collections budgets. While many newspapers offer their current issues for free to anyone with access to a computer, more often this material is available only through a commercial vendor by institutional subscription.

II. Transition from Print to Digital Format

In 2005, with a static collections budget, we can no longer afford to subscribe indiscriminately to print copies of newspapers, to be read at most by two or three individuals, when online access to current issues satisfies the needs and preferences of the vast majority of users and meets the emerging curriculum needs of journalism students and faculty. We have neither the staff to wrap nor the space to house mass quantities of current newsprint. Given these limitations on our operating and collections budgets, we must find affordable ways to provide persistent access to newspapers that do not entail wrapping newsprint with boards and paper and stashing it in makeshift storage areas.

Fortunately, we can look forward to a not too distant future when searchable digital facsimiles of hundreds of newspapers will be available to our users. Over the next few years, the National Digital Newspaper Program will produce 30 million pages of U.S. newspapers, and at UIUC we already have access to commercial databases offering retrospective files of newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Early American Newspapers, and Times (London), and to selected runs of other important newspapers digitized by historical societies and libraries (e.g., the Brooklyn Public Library's Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online, or Colorado's Historic Newspaper Collection). The British Library has recently undertaken a project to digitize two million pages of nineteenth-century British national, regional, and local newspapers. Similar projects are underway in other countries. The digital capture of newspapers as facsimiles preserves the cover-to-cover content, as well as the graphic material and relational context that students and scholars (in contrast to most casual readers) often require.

Web delivery of current newspapers and the availability of digital facsimiles of backfiles fundamentally alters the concept of a newspaper collection in the new millennium. Fiscal realities aside, the old model of acquisition and retention of newspapers is rendered obsolete by the new modes of newspaper publishing and delivery. Students and faculty at UIUC are not idle spectators in the digital revolution, and our responsibility to them mandates that we reduce our reliance on print and position ourselves to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by digital publishing.

At the same time, in this period of transition in newspaper publishing, it is vital that we remain cognizant of the potential losses to scholarship, as well as the gains, posed by the substitution of the digital medium for print. Form (or format) and function are inextricably linked in newspaper publishing. Electronic surrogates take many forms, from digital facsimiles to full content to full text. Although online access is available for many dailies via aggregator databases, often the online delivery of articles removes them from the context provided with the print edition. As stewards of our intellectual heritage, we must address the larger philosophical and hermeneutical issues raised by online surrogacy. What is the nature of context in an increasingly digital knowledge environment? How does electronic textuality differ from the print medium? How do differences in materiality affect the production of meaning and the reader's encounter with a text?

Clearly both libraries and users are profoundly affected by changes in publishing practices and content delivery. The digital representation of information changes not only the mode of encounter with the text, but its very meaning and uses. We are challenged to try to anticipate the new issues and questions that scholars will take up as they confront these new modes of presentation and dissemination of news.

III. Future Access

The present state of archiving of digital newspaper content is chaotic at best. Many major papers, including the Chicago Tribune, do not currently maintain a digital archive. Even when a publisher does host a digital morgue, it may very well not meet standards of integrity and reliability acceptable to libraries, and in all likelihood there is no guarantee of permanent stability. Consortia and other organizations, such as the CIC, the Center for Research Libraries and the International Coalition on Newspapers, must play a leading role in lobbying commercial vendors, especially database producers and aggregators, to adhere to minimum standards for digital archives and to ensure persistent access. Working consortially, we are much more likely to be successful in influencing commercial content providers to produce cover-to-cover electronic surrogates that are fully searchable and browsable, and as a group, we are better positioned to shape the terms of our interaction with these commercial entities. As a charter member of the International Coalition on Newspapers (an NEH-funded project based at the Center for Research Libraries), UIUC should take a leading role in these efforts.

As we are painfully aware, our commitment to building our collections has not always been matched by an awareness of how to manage them responsibly. UIUC established a centralized, comprehensive preservation program only in 2001. By this time a deeply entrenched "out of sight, out of mind" mentality had led to the accumulation of acres of newspapers, stored in undesirable, even abysmal environmental conditions, such as the Library's attic or the basement of the Law building. We now face the need to make decisions regarding the disposition of this material in a way that ensures access for future library users without requiring prohibitive investment of scarce resources in preservation and conservation processes. For Illinois newspapers, we will microfilm high-priority titles through the Illinois Newspaper Project under a grant from NEH and the U.S. Newspaper Program that runs through April 30, 2007. We will inventory and catalog international newspapers through a joint project with the Center for Research Libraries. Through this project we may identify titles that could be transferred permanently to CRL, and any long runs of titles that have not been previously microfilmed may be eligible for preservation filming through the ICON project. Finally, we must aggressively pursue participation in the National Digital Newspaper Program. This is a natural extension both of the Library's work on the Illinois Newspaper Project and our experience and preeminence in digital imaging. Given the popularity of historical backfiles of newspapers in digital format, our leading role in the digitization of Illinois newspapers can only enhance our stature with university funders and library donors.

IV. Interim Newspaper Collection Policy

The process of substituting online access for print must be approached carefully and with full understanding of the implications of our decisions, even when our choices are severely constrained by fiscal realities. It is vital that we maintain a working collection of current print newspapers to complement online access in order to support research and teaching that bridges the print and electronic media. To be sure, this working collection will be smaller than the array of current newsprint that we were able to offer in the halcyon days of ample acquisitions and operating budgets. For archival purposes, we will continue to rely on microfilm as the accepted medium of preservation. New microfilm viewing and scanning technology that delivers film images to the desktop will increase the appeal of this medium to students and scholars, and acquiring and supporting this technology is an essential component of our mission.

An interim plan allows us to stabilize the existing collection, continue to acquire resources to support the teaching and research mission of the university, and work consortially to achieve solutions to issues of access and preservation, while monitoring trends and new developments in newspaper publishing.

The interim collection policy for newspapers should incorporate all of the following efforts:

  1. Provide electronic access to current issues of newspapers as extensively as possible.

  2. Maintain a smaller, more select working collection of current print newspapers that is both representative of major currents in newspaper publishing and also tied to the curriculum.

  3. Continue to purchase access to digital facsimiles of historical backfiles of major newspapers. Our desiderata list includes the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Constitution, and Chicago Defender.

  4. Continue to rely on microfilm as the medium of preservation and access for back files.

  5. Work with consortial and entrepreneurial partners to ensure that our unique and important international newspapers are filmed and to lobby for adoption of library standards for digital content, access, and preservation.

  6. Continue to convert some print subscriptions to film subscriptions when a full-content online version is available for current coverage.

  7. Promote reliance on the Center for Research Libraries and other institutional partners for access to film when feasible.

  8. Work with the Associate University Librarian for Collections and the Preservation and Conservation staff to develop a prioritized list of titles for conservation and to devise solutions to long-standing preservation and storage problems.

  9. Work with the Associate University Librarian for Collections and the Head of Preservation to identify material appropriate for grant-funded or commercial microfilming.

  10. Explore pilot digitization projects with Head of Preservation and Digital Services and Development staff.


Mary Stuart
History, Philosophy and Newspaper Librarian
Professor of Library Administration