I’ll talk about the Michigan Newspaper Project, a recent newspaper preservation project, and then look to the changing state of newspapers and how this might impact those institutions which try to collect and preserve them. As we’ve heard, Michigan has a long history with newspapers. The future of newspapers, and newspaper collecting, however is quite uncertain. I need to acknowledge in this group of archivists, that I am a librarian and I think and work out of a library context. While I spend a lot of time with archivists – I don’t fully understand what it is you do, and how it is you do it.
The Michigan Newspaper Project – It was part of the USNP, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and organized by the Library of Congress. There was a similar project in each state – and territory. The purpose was to locate, catalog, and microfilm Michigan’s newspaper heritage. Though newspapers are an important historical resource, they had not always received the top attention by the collecting institutions. There was not a good or consistent record of what had been published, and which institutions had what newspaper holdings.
After several years of working with newspapers, I can say with some authority that the likely reason libraries and archives hadn’t done this work before is newspapers are a collecting and bibliographic and preservation nightmare. There are a lot of newspaper collections holding a lot of newspapers. Newspaper collections are not particularly centralized – yes LM, DPL, UM, CMU have lots – but lots of collections still spread out around state held in all types of organizations, as well as privately held. And these institutions often had little idea what they held. They would tell us they had 100 years of a title, which was correct if you ignored the fact that they had only scattered issues for the first 40 years. Bibliographic nightmare – The history of newspaper publishing is history of mergers, splits, editions, name changes, battling publishers, and multitudes of inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. As a library cataloger, it is sometimes a challenge to use current cataloging rules to attempt to create order where none has existed before. With traditional library cataloging the most important features are author and title. Applying these rules to newspapers means a new record is created with nearly every minor title change. With newspapers, by and large, the most important access points are geography and chronology. People want a paper from a place at a time – and cataloging doesn’t serve these needs very well. Near the end of the program LC rep said if they knew now what they knew then they would completely change how they cataloged newspapers. Preservation nightmare – Despite Nicholson Baker’s belief, newsprint and newspapers are ephemeral and not long lasting. They often gets very brittle, bound volumes are large and heavy and usually dirty, and microfilm isn’t all that much fun to work with. Despite all these challenges, the MNP moved on (in spurts).
Staff traveled to many sites to catalog their holdings and place much of the information on OCLC’s Worldcat. Significant benefit is that record of vast majority of newspapers published in Michigan has been recorded in WorldCat database and the holdings of these titles from many libraries has been added to this database. This has greatly improved the findability of these titles.
Microfilming portion of the Project was handled by Frank at CMU. Based on the data collected through inventorying and cataloging we needed to decide on a group of titles to be microfilmed. It became quickly evident there was much more needing to be filmed than money/time to film. Newspaper titles were selected by a board of reputable experts (and a few others). Microfilming was ably done to exacting standards set by the national program. Filmed a little over 100 titles from 51 cities in 33 counties in 7 languages – or 740,472 pages. (and Frank personally checked each page all for quality of filming and accuracy of reporting and deleting any incriminating stories.) Master camera negative, print master, 1 copy at Clarke, 1 copy to newspaper owning library, and 2 copies of all titles at LM. Reason LM received 2 copies is all these had to be available for ILL throughout US. LM now has approx 65,000 reels of microfilmed newspapers. (not all Mich, but most)
newspaper preservation today – 2 prongs – microfilming current papers, digitizing old newspapers,. Despite the fact that microfilm remains a trusted and reasonable economical preservation method, it has pretty much dropped off the radar of funders. Microfilm is still recognized as the preservation format for newspapers, just nobody like it for access. Digitizing old – On the national level the NDNP is out there, follow-up to USNP. The plan is that there will be a project in each state digitizing newspapers from 1837-1922. However, successful, economical mass digitization of newspapers is not yet figured out. There are lots of big challenges for successful newspaper digitization. Doing it from print is really slow (if you can find the paper). Doing it from microfilm depends on good quality filming of good quality originals (Like all MNP film). Even in the best of times, the size and layouts of newspaper pages present a bunch of other challenges. (NDNP recently hit 1 mil page. Remember that in a few years we microfilmed around 750 k in Michigan. LM’s collection of 65000 reels is conservatively 40 mil pages. So, with NDNP’s work costing more than $2/p. its hard to see how this model is feasible on a large scale.) This is probably why Google hasn’t gotten into it yet. We’ll see what Google does – but hopefully libraries and archives won’t leave it all to Google. May have to relax expectations. (Oh yeah, the there are still the Nicholson Baker types who want to keep all the paper copies – as long as some university takes them off his hands.)
Future of newspapers and preservation. Old newspapers often survived through benign neglect – doing nothing didn’t do any harm. That doesn’t work in digital world. In the old newspaper/publisher arrangement, they gathered news, printed it on paper, and we purchased copies of the paper which we then owned. Based on our current approach to preservation once a newspaper goes entirely online, we pretty much lose any ownable preservable resource – or at least it becomes much more difficult. If we want to preserve this information, someone will have to come up with some new arrangement for collecting it in some preservable form. Really need to evaluate what we are trying to preserve. The newspaper as a rich document of local record – a vital tool particularly for local history research (and genealogy) is really not much more than 125 years old, but we’ve learned to like all this information and can’t imagine doing without. However, as institutions which want to collect documentation of our community, our collections will be greatly lacking if there are no current newspapers to collect. If collecting institutions are serious about documenting the life of their community, then we will need to figure out new ways of collecting and preserving this information.
Past and Future of Newspaper Preservation Kevin Driedger Library of Michigan