Newspapers are among the most difficult items to preserve. A valuable source of local, national and world news, they are inherently fragile and are prone to damage from a variety of factors, including light, heat, humidity and pollution. Many of us have set aside special issues or sections of newspapers in the hopes of keeping them for future use. Whether to document Aunt Tillie’s latest misadventures with the neighbor’s dog or to record current insights on major world events, newspapers are important documents that help us understand ourselves and our world. If you have newspapers or newspaper clippings you want to save, do not despair. There are a few simple steps you can take that will extend the life of those special documents.
Since the mid-1800s, most newspapers have been printed on low quality wood pulp paper. The paper is made by grinding wood into sawdust-like particles which are then boiled and formed into sheets, a process which is cheap and efficient but does little to remove lignin and other impurities from the untreated ground wood fibers. The result is an unstable, highly acidic paper that reacts easily with outside factors, such as heat and light. Prior to the mid-1800s, paper was made with cotton or linen rag. The resulting product was much stronger and more stable. A newspaper printed in the early 1800s, for example, is often in much better shape than one printed in the twentieth century, no matter how it has been stored. Even with care, today’s newspapers have a life expectancy of only about fifty years.
Many museums, libraries and other cultural institutions with newspapers in their collections store the originals in special climate-controlled environments while maintaining microfilm copies for everyday use. Most homes and businesses are not so fortunate and do not have special areas set aside for the sole purpose of preserving inanimate objects. Luckily it is usually not too hard to figure out which spaces are best. Selecting a storage area with a stable environment is one of the most important considerations as extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity can cause severe damage. Temperatures ranging from 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit with an average relative humidity of 40-50 percent are good. Newspapers should be stored in a cool, dry, dark location that is free of pests and pollution. Limiting exposure to dust, air pollution and light, especially sunlight and fluorescent light, reduces the rate at which the newspaper will decay. Avoid using areas that are near food and placing newspapers directly on the floor. This will cut down on potential pest and rodent invasions and prevent damage from unexpected flooding. Newspapers survive best packed in archival boxes or folders with acid-free tissue and interleaving paper. Archival-quality storage supplies have an alkaline buffer that neutralizes the acids given off by newsprint. Archival supplies can be purchased through conservation supply companies or at local arts and crafts stores.
Whether cared for in a museum or in a home or business, newspapers face an array of hazards which threaten their very existence. Thanks to improvements in technology, newspapers are increasingly being preserved digitally as electronic images. The Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) is currently working with the Minnesota Digital Library to digitize the first fifteen volumes of The Pierz Journal, a newspaper that was published in Pierz, Minnesota, from 1909 to 1968. MCHS has the only known nearly complete set of originals for this paper. Extremely fragile, their use is restricted even by museum staff. (See separate article in this issue for more information on the Save the Pierz Journals project.) MCHS maintains original issues of many local papers, including The Motley Mercury, The Royalton Banner and the Morrison County Record. The papers span a period of time stretching from 1857 to the present. As the science of preservation continues to evolve, new methods are being developed that will allow both individuals and museum professionals to better care for these important primary source documents. Though inherently unstable, newspapers are rich archival treasures that are loaded with information and worthy of being saved.
-Ann Marie Johnson, Curator of Collections
Lignin – an organic substance that functions as a natural binder and support for the cellulose fibers of woody plants. Commonly found in wood pulp, which is used to make newsprint, it promotes acidic reactions when exposed to light, high humidity and atmospheric pollutants such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides.
Alkaline – having the properties of or containing an alkali (any base or hydroxide, such as potash and soda, that is soluble in water, is capable of neutralizing acids and can alter the tint of many coloring substances). Paper containing an alkaline reserve, which is often chalk, looks whiter and lasts longer as acids are neutralized before they have a chance to start the process of degradation.