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Preserving UIUC’s Newspaper Collections

As an institution committed to building collections for the use of patrons both now and in the future, the University of Illinois must ensure long-term access to those collections. The Library’s print newspaper1 collection represents not only a massive financial investment, but also a piece of the historical record that, due to the unstable nature of newsprint, is easily destroyed and in many cases irreplaceable. The History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library (HPNL) is committed to preserving the intellectual content of its newspaper collections and, whenever, possible, the physical integrity of the original print newspapers, the material objects which themselves possess artefactual value to scholars of the transmission and dissemination of news.2

Many of the newspapers in our collection were printed on inexpensive, mass-produced, wood-pulp paper, which newspaper publishers began using between 1870 and 1885. Although the economies of newspaper publishing made wood-pulp paper highly desirable to publishers, its structural properties (short, weak fibers) and chemical properties (presence of acidic impurities and high levels of lignin) caused it to deteriorate as it aged. The use of acidic alum rosin as a sizing3 only hastened this deterioration. While it is impossible to reverse the deterioration of paper, we can slow that process by controlling the conditions under which the paper is stored and handled. In the case of newspapers that are too brittle to use, we can capture and preserve both the physical appearance and the intellectual content of the newspaper through preservation reformatting.4

In partnership with the Library’s Department of Conservation and Preservation, the HPNL works to preserve the Library’s newspaper collections through the following six initiatives.

1. Identify Newspapers in the Library’s Collections

There remain hundreds, possibly thousands, of volumes of newspapers in the Library’s Main Stacks. Many of these volumes are in the older, East Wing of the Stacks, which provides poor environmental conditions for the storage of newsprint. Furthermore, all newsprint in the Main Stacks may be handled by patrons without any mediation from library staff who are trained in the proper handling of newsprint (see Initiative 5 below). A high priority for the HPNL is to identify newsprint in the Main Stacks, and to have it transferred to the Oak Street High Density Storage Facility, where the newsprint can be stored in optimal conditions (see Initiative 2 below) and where mediated access can be ensured.

Another reason to identify newsprint, much of it still uncataloged, is to determine which newspapers in our collection are unique, and which have never been preservation reformatted (see Initiative 6 below).

2. Ensure Proper Storage of Newspapers

Air humidity causes lignins and other chemical impurities found in wood-pulp newsprint to produce acids that further weaken the paper. Sunlight oxidizes the cellulose fibers in the paper, which causes the paper to turn brown and brittle. Finally, temperature affects the speed at which deterioration proceeds. Every drop of 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) in the space where newspapers are stored will double the paper’s life-span.5

Following the Library of Congress’s recommendations for the storage of newspapers,6 all newspapers will be stored flat, in a state-of-the-art storage facility specifically designed for the long-term preservation of paper-based documents (minimal exposure to ultraviolet- and infrared-emitting light, a stable temperature of about 50° Fahrenheit, and a stable relative humidity of about 30%).

3. Ensure that Newspapers have Complete Bibliographic Descriptions

Newspapers are notoriously difficult to catalog, in part because of frequent title changes and the simultaneous publication of multiple editions. Ensuring that each of our newspapers has a complete bibliographic description can prevent patrons from requesting items that don’t actually meet their needs (e.g. a patron thought he was requesting the daily edition of the New York Herald, but what he received was the weekly edition). Also, complete holdings records can prevent patrons from requesting bound volumes or wrapped packages that don’t actually contain the issues they want. By making it easier for patrons to select exactly the packages or volumes they need, complete bibliographic descriptions and holdings records will prevent unnecessary handling of our print newspapers, as well as unnecessary shipping between the Library and our remote storage facility. For all the same reasons, complete bibliographic descriptions will also save the patron’s time (Ranganathan’s 4th Law of Librarianship). Click here to see an example of an enhanced holding record (staff only). For more information on creating complete bibliographic descriptions of newspapers, see our proposed policy on Cataloging Newspapers for Preservation (Proposal–staff only).

4. Provide Expert Newspaper Reference Service

Expert newspaper reference service will promote the conservation of our print newspaper collection by helping to ensure that patrons only use our print newspapers when the original print is the format that will best meet their needs. A common scenario: a patron discovers an OPAC record for the original, print version of a newspaper that he wants to use; the patron stops searching, and requests the print newspaper. HPNL staff will be aware of alternative formats which might satisfy the patron’s need as well as, or even better than, the original print. (For example, most patrons will prefer a searchable, digitized version to the original print.) Our newspaper reference staff will make certain that patrons are fully aware of their options, so that they may select the format that best meets their needs. The UIUC Newspaper Database is a critical tool for supporting our newspaper reference service, as it collocates all available formats (manifestations) of a newspaper (resource) onto the same record, making it easy for patrons and staff to identify the formats that are immediately available here at UIUC.

When instructing patrons on the proper handling of newspapers (see Initiative 5 below), expert newspaper reference staff will also be able to explain why such precautions are necessary.

5. Ensure Proper Handling of Newspapers by Patrons

Every time a newspaper is handled, the paper becomes structurally weaker, due to the tensile stress of handling, to the chemical impurities introduced by air pollutants, and to the moisture and oils found on hands.7 Moisture combines with the paper’s alum rosin sizing to generate yet more acid, which further increases the rate of deterioration; oils attract dirt and other impurities that damage paper.

HPNL staff will instruct patrons on proper handling of print newspapers, and will monitor patrons to ensure that newspapers are properly handled. For more information, see our Policy on Patron Use of Print Newspapers. See also our Staff Procedures for Handling Print Newspapers (staff only).

6. Assist with Newspaper Reformatting

The HPNL will work with the Library’s Department of Conservation and Preservation to identify newspapers that need reformatting. For more information, see our Newspaper Reformatting Workflow (staff only). See also our List of Newspapers Reformatted (staff only). Desiderata password: hpnlpres123 .

1. The word “newspaper” is used here to denominate any large format periodical-on-newsprint.

2. See UIUC Preservation Policy Statement.

3. Sizing is a coating applied to paper to make the paper less absorbent. Without sizing, ink would bleed into the paper, making it difficult or impossible to create legible letterforms. For more information, see the article History, Chemistry, and Long-Term Effects of Alum-Rosin Size in Paper.

4. Certain features of the original print newspaper (e.g. the newspaper’s actual dimensions, or its continuous-tone images) are not well captured by some preservation reformatting techniques.

5. “Newsprint and Its Preservation,” Preservation Leaflet 5 (November, 1981): 2.

6. Library of Congress, “Preservation Measures for Newspapers.”

7. Jeanne Drewes, “Preservation Partners: Engaging in Staff in Preservation Efforts” (paper, World Library and Information Congress: 72nd IFLA General Conference and Council, Seoul, South Korea, August 20-24, 2006.