As you search for mentions of ancestors in newspapers, most likely you won’t be flipping through pages, but rather cranking through plastic sheets on a microfilm reader. But what if the film cuts off some important text? Or blackens out a photo of your ancestor? You might want to check the original newspaper to see what you’re missing. Chances are, though, you’re out of luck.
According to the new book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper by Nicholson Baker (Random House), “the annihilation of once accessible collections of major daily papers of the late 19th and 20th centuries is pretty close to total.” Since the advent of microfilm in the 1930s, libraries have been photographing their massive newspaper collections to preserve them on microfilm, then selling off or throwing away the originals.
Why don’t libraries hold onto these rare volumes of America’s past? Baker says the combination of misinformation (the myth that newspaper crumbles and disintegrates after a few years) and lack of storage space has led to the mass destruction of American newspapers, both here and abroad. But anyone who has used microfilm would know it often blurs or cuts off words, blackens or distorts images, and is usually in black and white.
“When you replace a broadsheet newspaper with microfilm, you effectively kill stone dead much of what it meant at its time,” a librarian in Cambridge, England, told Baker. Newspapers from the late 1800s and early 1900s are most slighted by the medium, because they are heavily and colorfully illustrated — nuances lost on film.
The United States Newspaper Program is a national effort to preserve Americas historic press. Each state library inventories the newspaper collections of its local libraries, museums, courthouses and other sites, and catalogs them on a national database maintained by the Online Computer Library Center <www.oclc.org>.
Under the program, microfilm copies of newspapers are available anywhere in the country through interlibrary loan. Borrowers typically pay a small fee and may have to wait four to six weeks. Visit <www.neh.gov/preservation/usnp.html> for more information; you can also access online newspaper morgues at 50 state libraries and eight National Newspaper Repositories, listed below:
Kansas State Historical Society, 10,330 titles cataloged: 6425 SW 6th Ave., Topeka, KS 66615, (785) 272-8681, Ext. 201,
The New York Public Library, 7,000 titles cataloged, 2 million pages microfilmed: Fifth Ave. & 42nd St., New York, NY 10018,(212)930-0711, [email protected], <www.nypl.org/research/chss/grd/resguides/period.html>
The New York Historical Society, 9,080 titles cataloged: 2 W 77th St., New York, NY 10024, (212) 873-3400 Ext. 225, <www.nyhistory.org/librarycollection.html>
Rutgers University, 3,139 titles cataloged: 169 College Ave., New Brunswick, NJ 08901, (732) 932-7006, [email protected], <www.libraries.rutgers.edu/rulib/spcol/spcol.htm# newspapers>