Historians and the Preservation of Newspaper Content, Part 1

Part 1 --- Part 2 --- Part 3 --- Part 4

Loyal Reader Dexter asked a couple of good questions the other day.

What, he wondered, will happen to the newspapers that are closing? Have historians thought about how to save the papers’ contents once they’re gone?

Good questions and ones of enormous importance to historians like me. For decades-going-into-centuries, newspapers have functioned as one of historians' main sources of information. Think of a newspaper as an eyewitness account of say, life, in 1880.

Nowadays, of course, we have a wealth of "eyewitness" accounts of contemporary life. Historians of the future are gonna be overwhelmed with sources.

The short answer to his questions are:

In many cases, maybe even most cases, the contents have already been saved/preserved. Here’s why: For the past thirty or forty years, the owners of many newspapers have microfilmed their contents on a regular basis. Every month, or, for some papers, every three or four months, an employee gathers paper copies and sends them off to the filming service. A few weeks later, the service ships reels of film to the newspaper.

In the 1960s and after, many big newspapers also used microfilming to create film-based archives of their contents back to day one of the newspaper’s publication. So, for example, the entire contents of every issue of the New York Times has been available on microfilm for decades. Microfilm isn’t searchable, of course, except by eye, but it’s been a valuable tool for historians for years and years.

A few years ago, the Times also began digitizing that film, so that every word of every issue is also available as a digital database that can be searched using keywords. (That, by the way, completely altered life as we know it for historians like me.)

So in theory, most newspapers have been saved. The exceptions are very tiny weeklies, of the sort found in rural parts of the country. Here in Iowa, for example, there are a still a few of these small operations that cover strictly local news (school lunch menus, deaths, weddings, town council meetings and the like). My guess is that most of those small operations can’t afford to pay for filming services, and so they likely save paper copies.

Happily, in both small towns and in large cities, public libraries also function as repositories for newspapers, either in paper form (which takes up a lot of space) or, more often, by owning reels of the microfilmed copies. So even if a small town newspaper goes under, it's safe to assume that copies of the newspaper will still exist in at least one place.

NEXT TIME: Digitization, newspapers' paper trail, and perservation.