Newsprint as a Preservation Priority

Greetings, all!

The nature of newsprint preservation is a race against time. Like nearly all historic documents, decay is inevitable, but with newsprint, that threat comes faster. Why is this? The answer comes in the way in which it is processed.

Inherent Vice

Not just the title of a Thomas Pynchon novel, the term “inherent vice” refers to an item’s low-quality materials that hasten its decay- a term that perfectly describes the properties of newspaper. The durability and longevity of paper relies on its fiber. Unlike paper made from cotton fibers (such as paper money made from long-stranded cloth fiber), newsprint is created from short-stranded wood pulp, the inexpensive byproduct of the paper-making process. The difference in the fiber strand size impacts the breaking point: short strands break more easily than long strands, which leads to more rapid decay:

The cheap pulp and its relatively rapid decay process reflect the ephemeral nature of the medium itself: Who among us has not heard of a newspaper referred to as “fishwrap”? Or heard the term “Yesterday’s news”? Or have even heard of seedy paperback novels as referred to as “pulp fiction”?

But to those who work to preserve the medium, there is intrinsic value in retaining original newspaper copies. While best practices dictate displaying digital copies of newspapers or articles that have been printed out, such as these from the recent Princess Sophia shipwreck centennial at the Alaska State Museum…

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Curators chose to display a physical copy of the Nome Tri-Weekly Nugget in the Princess Sofia exhibit to display the magnitude of the printed names of the passengers who died on board the ship:

Sophia Newspaper

100 years later, one can see the extent of decay from the brittle, yellowed quality of the paper. But it certainly packs an emotional punch.

Solutions?

To stave off the slow burn of newsprint, preservationists turned to microfilm starting as early as the 1950s. Microfilm started to be used widely in libraries in the 1970s as a way to condense larger documents, and therefore use less space. Newspapers stored on microfilm was an ideal solution to the issues surrounding both storage and preservation, and are still in wide use today. However, quality control is a must. As discussed in last week’s post, if there are any filming errors, and the physical newspaper has been destroyed, there is no way to re-create a microfilm copy.

At the Alaska State Library, we still keep original copies of newspapers for just this reason. Boxes of newspapers lie flat in the vault kept at 50 degrees Fahrenheit. For the most part (with the exception for the display of historical artifacts), the only light exposure the paper receives is through a BookEye machine to create a digital copy, if no microfilm issue exists.

Microfilm itself is not a perfect medium. Master reels need to be held in cold storage (ASL keeps the temperature at a chilly 40 degrees Fahrenheit). The reels of silver nitrate and the chemicals used to create images can be very expensive. So what comes next?

For many libraries, the future of historic newspapers is to create a digital platform, which is what Chronicling America is creating. State institutions and libraries are creating digital interfaces of their own: the Arizona Memory Project stands out as a way forward in creating an accessible web-based platform for its historic newspapers.

Given the importance of historic newspapers as primary sources, it is vital that archives and historical collections make newspaper preservation a priority. The medium does not make this easy, but by working from copies saved in cold storage and on microfilm, we are making headway in making newspapers digitally accessible. Not bad for a bunch of chopped-up wood pulp!

 

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Microfilm Quality Control: Or, What Can Possibly Go Wrong?

Greetings, all!

Last week, we provided an update on the re-filming the Nome Nugget. To delve a bit deeper in the topic, I’d like to share some background on the process of filming newspaper- specifically, what we look for in controlling the quality of newspaper images.

Human Error

When looking through microfilm, an occasional, unexpected sight appears:

microfilm invader

(Photo credit: Historical Tennessee Newspapers on Pinterest)

Hands and fingers secure pages when shooting an image, and at worst can cover text in an image and make it difficult to read. This problem is not limited to newspapers, however. Eagle-eyed readers on Google Books have compiled several instances of imaging tech’s fingers, such as these ones:

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Photo credit: The Art of Google Books Tumblr

Some of these errors are linked to the need to speed up production, at the expense of overall image quality. (The Google Books project has its share of images that document unexpected findings within its digital pages: theartofgooglebooks.tumblr.com)

Moire

Have you ever tried to take a photo of something on a computer screen? If so, then you’re familiar with the pattern that appears in these images:

moirenewspaper

There’s a name for that effect: Moire. It’s a pattern formed by two sets of parallel lines slightly distorted:

Moiré_pattern.svg

(Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

This term is also used in the world of fashion as a type of effect with fabric often seen in silk and damask worn in portraits of noblemen and women.

In addition, another type of fabric, called shot silk, combines two colors, one on the warp (the top of the weave) another on the weft (the side of the weave), to create a color-changing effect depending on where the light hits it:

Salzburg_Mattes_2013-08-03_(31)

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Similarly, when taking a photo of a computer screen, frequencies create a visual effect.

When images are filmed on the Book Eye or the Mekel microfilming machine, they are filmed without a digital interface, and therefore without the moire effect.

Book/Newspaper errors

These errors pose an interesting question: when filming, how much of the actual document should people see? For instance, filmed fingers on pages or handwritten marginalia or entire articles cut out allows the reader to view the document not as a newspaper in a vacuum, but as a copy that others have held and read in the past.

We at the National Digital Newspaper Project do our best to provide newspaper images from original microfilm- and many times the images show marginalia on the pages (usually to correct the dates or issue numbers). One could argue that these errors recreate an experience we’re more accustomed to when dealing with physical objects: stains, marginalia, bookmarks, and even pressed flowers come into play in this digital format. More often than not, an actual person is the one opening the pages and shooting the images. These errors, then, allow us to see the human side of the process.

Many thanks to The Art of Google Books (http://theartofgooglebooks.tumblr.com/) and to Historic Tennessee Newspapers on Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/historictnnews/microfilm-invaders/) !

Stay tuned for next week’s post on newspaper as a preservation priority!

Re-Filming the Nome Nugget

Greetings, all!

Even though production has ended on the 2016-2018 National Digital Newspaper Program cycle, we are still hard at work. One particular area of focus is on the venerable Nome Nugget, the oldest continually published newspaper in Alaska. Our Micrographics department is busy re-filming bound volumes of the Nome Nugget from 1911-1924 to include on Chronicling America. The current state of its microfilm is rather poor, as you can see here:

Nome Nugget 1900

Fortunately, the Alaska State Library still has issues of the Nome Nugget from which to shoot better microfilm copies. These issues come in large bound volumes of newsprint, and roughly the size of a standard newspaper today. To film each page, we scan an image on a machine called a Book Eye:

Nome Nugget 1

To capture an image as crisp as possible, we are filming the pages without the glass plate in front. Once the Book Eye scans a page, the image shows up on a screen, which Amber Glen from the Micrographics Department uses to assess the image quality:

Nome Nugget 2

Once an image is saved, we use that digital copy to compile into a master microfilm reel once a volume has been scanned in its entirety. Thanks to her efforts, and those of everyone in the Micrographics Department at the Alaska State Library, we now have high-resolution digital images that will one day be text-searchable on Chronicling America. In other words, a drastic change from images like these:

Nome Nugget 1912 A

To sharper, more legible pages like this:

Nome Nugget 1912 B

Stay tuned for next week’s post on microfilming quality control!

Greetings from the Alaska Anthropological Association Conference!

AAA PosterLast week, National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP) director Anastasia Tarmann and project coordinator Janey Thompson attended the 45th Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association in Anchorage to spread the word about historic Alaska newspapers and progress on the project.

In addition to a poster, we prepared brochures that provided a brief overview of the project, a Chronicling America demonstration on a laptop computer, and unique microfilm bookmarks.

While talking to scholars at the table, many shared their experiences using Chronicling America to assist in their research, one of whom used the site to study changes in brand logos in advertisements over time. Additionally, a few attendees shared titles that we should consider adding to the project and offered to serve on the title selection committee.

In addition to “tabling”, we each had the opportunity to attend lectures given by conference attendees. These presentations of their papers related to the archaeology and anthropology of Alaska, with topics ranging from language revitalization, to museum exhibit design, to the excavation of hearth sites, to the affects of global warming on historic anthropological landmarks.

The Alaska Anthropological Association annual meeting gave us an opportunity to see what researchers and scholars throughout Alaska are studying, and how best our newspaper resources can assist them. Many thanks to all those who made the annual meeting possible!

AAA Conference

On This Day In History: July 18

A plea for the preservation of scenic woodlands surrounding Skagway, Alaska printed in the July 18, 1901 issue of The Daily Alaskan.  It would not be for another six years until that plea was answered by the creation of the Tongass National Forest in September 1907 through a presidential proclamation by Theodore Roosevelt.


 

DailyAlaskan_19010718_SkagwayForestPreservation


“Three years ago the Skagway and Dyea canyons were wooded with stately trees.  The mountain sides were clothed in a mantle of attractive evergreens.  Today the bottoms of the Skagway river have been cleared for the townsite and its extension, and the beauty of the scenery is marred by vast expanses of charred tree trunks.  Much of the primeval attraction of the country is gone forever.  Each succeeding summer marks the recurrence of devastating forest fires.  In most cases they are caused by negligence that is little short of criminal.  There is no closely adjacent timber to Skagway left to protect.  If some concerted action is not taken to preserve the woodlands at the head of Lynn canal it will be but a very few years before the shores of the scenic waters are but blackened and ungainly wastes.

No country on the face of the globe contains a nook more scenically beautiful than West creek, the lower tributary of the Dyea river.  The beetling crags, the walled valley, the pinnacles of the mountains, the glistening glaciers hanging to their precipitous inclines, combined with the sweeping, placid curves of the shaded stream, that in places breaks into a roaring torrent of rapids and waterfalls.  And all this beauty was enhanced with moss carpeted evergreen groves.  This summer must be recorded the defacement of the loveliest feature in this scenic paradise for the green forests in its radius are now but charred and unattractive expanses.  Those who do not care for natural beauties of the country may reasonably remain passive over the destruction of the forests, though people who have cast their lot here must certainly be alive not only to the destruction of valuable timber but to the commercial value of strikingly beautiful scenery.

It will not be many years before people of leasure and means will tarry in Alaska for their summer outings.  The Gun Club, Camera Club, the Chamber of Commerce and all other organizations, called into being for the furtherance of vested interests, or the enjoyment of the beauty and sport afforded by flood, field, mountain and fell, should combine to devise some means whereby Goths and Vandals may be restrained from destroying that which nature has taken centuries to produce.”

What is the National Digital Newspaper Program?

Part II

Why devote national resources to something that was not originally intended to be kept longer than the time it took to print the next issue?

In his 1999 response to an award granted by the Heritage Lottery Fund for the purpose of digitizing U.K. newspapers, Chris Smith, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, had this to say:

“Newspapers have been called history’s first draft. The conservation of our stock of local newspapers, much of it suffering from acidity and thus difficult to handle, is incredibly important because it forms a considerable part of our nation’s archives.”¹

As one of the first mass produced means of communication, historical newspapers offer a wealth of information and insight into past events valuable to researchers across fields.  Local papers, especially those of small communities, are records of political, social, cultural, and economic development and decline.  Following are just a few examples of the types of information found in newspapers:

  • Advertisements of goods and services offered by local businesses
  • Political commentary of legislation, political figures, and elections
  • Detailed accounts of events, e.g. disasters, social gatherings and celebrations
  • Letters to the editor: what concerns were people having at that time
  • Public notices, e.g. unclaimed mail, emergency notification and instruction, and delinquent taxes
  • Obituaries: often the only source of detailed information on a person’s life in those times

*A note on what historical newspapers do not do: provide a full record of the human experience by largely ignoring or selectively representing minority populations, often in an unfavorable light.

The concept behind Chronicling America is access.  To have this wealth of information preserved is only one aspect of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP).  The webpage Chronicling America (chroniclingamerica.lov.gov), run by the Library of Congress, ensures that the public will be able to access the fruit of the NDNP’s digital labor 24/7.  Currently there are over 12 million pages of U.S. historical newspapers digitized on Chronicling America ready to be used for everything from searching consumer and fashion trends, to tracking weather history and climate change, to inspiring projects like Freedom on the Move.²  By implementing optical character recognition (OCR), these digitized pages are text-searchable, making it an extremely useful resource for researchers and educators.

While newspapers may be considered the first draft, they are still an important source of unique historical information, a chorus of voices reflecting the concerns and opinions of communities, many of which have otherwise not survived the sands of time. Their preservation is in part the preservation of not only local, but national heritage and through this they can serve as tools of education and instruction for future generations.

 


¹ J. Secker, “Newspapers and historical research: a study of historians and custodians in Wales” (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Wales, 1999), 17.  http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/17693

 

² Freedom on the Move is a joint project between Cornell University, the University of New Orleans, and the University of Alabama focused on creating a database comprised of all runaway slave ads printed in historical newspapers throughout the South for the purpose of making this information accessible for analysis and education.  For more on this project visit http://freedomonthemove.org/


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For Part I of this post visit What is the National Digital Newspaper Program (Part I)