The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 24, Number 5
Feb 2001


"Preserving" Newspapers, Part 2

There was not enough room in the last issue to reprint all the reactions to Nicholas Baker's New Yorker article about the fate of newspapers in libraries, so the last few comments are entered here. -Ed.

8. Mitchell Hearns Bishop sent his comments to the DistList October 23:

...After more than 20 years in the field of libraries and conservation I read [Baker's] article with a feeling of nausea and what I can only describe as guilt or regret. I clearly remember the arguments advanced in favor of microfilm and remember attending a microfilming workshop at the Library of Congress. The people conducting the workshop were not evil zealots but sensible people trying to deal with what they regarded as a very serious problem. At the time, I was convinced that microfilming was clearly the answer and that disposing of newspapers was not something even worthy of discussion. However, personally, I have not been involved in a project involving the microfilming and disposal of newspapers or of any other material. I can say so now with a personal feeling of relief.
I also remembered having access to an entire run of Punch and more pedestrian newsprint publications in my early college days. Going through them was a revelation to me and opened up past worlds with a degree of intimacy that was almost inconceivable, and yes, they were in fine shape. The thought of this material being reduced to microfilm is truly sickening since it ignores the tactile qualities, color and many other important aspects of the format. After all, a newspaper is not simply a source of information. Many of them were in odd formats and had many quirks that would not reproduce well. I used a great deal of microfilm then and regarded it as a necessary evil but a good way for our library to acquire materials that would have been impossible to acquire in their original form. However, this is a separate issue. I think most of us now regard reformatting as being a tool for providing alternate means of access or reducing the wear an tear on originals. I suspect that destructive reformatting is now a thing of the past.
Since my days at the Library of Congress microfilming workshop I have come to firmly believe that originals should be preserved whenever possible and that destructive reformatting processes are not acceptable except under very, very unusual circumstances. We are clearly unable to anticipate what will be important in the future and caution is in order. Too many times, we have been led astray by what turns out to be temporary trends in treatment and limited understanding of materials issues....
Baker's article is fair comment; and acts done with the best intentions are not somehow shielded from future criticism. Preservation and conservation do take place in a social context for better or for worse. The people who made these decisions did so thinking they were doing the right thing at the time except for a few cynics with a financial or political motivation.... I think we need to be more prudent and to have a greater regard for originals even if we view them as doomed or a nuisance. Institutional fads come and go and unfortunately scientific evidence that appears to be unshakable is sometimes later badly shaken and destroyed. A review of the science around the preservation of newsprint and the storage recommendations for it is probably in order in light of this discussion.
I doubt that Baker's article will lead to wholesale recantations but I suspect I am not the only one who regrets an earlier point of view. I imagine many others will do so quietly.

9. Peter Graham replied to Colin Webb's and Mitchell Bishop's comments on October 24:

As one of those terrible administrators, I want to ask a couple of questions about the three letters in the most recent Cons DistList 14:25. The first two writers, Mitchell Bishop and Colin Webb, simply take Baker's statements as being the case and don't add new information to the discussion. Webb, in Australia, speaks of the desirability of saving one hard copy. So does Farren. What is the need for this, if not the "sentimental" reasons that Farren speaks of? I know this is a hard-nosed question; I'd like a hard-nosed answer. I'm just as sentimental as the next guy, but I'm in the position of having to manage funds and make decisions—one hopes with good advice—on this sort of issue.
Other answers might include whether, as is claimed, microfilming technique and quality control is better now than it used to be. If not, can it be? If so, back to first question.
Is there good measured qualitative information on what Colin Webb calls the "variable rates" of decay of newsprint? —I've begun seeing anecdotal statements about this since the Baker article, but not data. Is it affected by usage? If not, what affects it and can this be brought into microfilming and other preservation decisions? If so, then the calculus of use vs. preservation comes very much into play, and the perfectly-preserved newspapers become candidates for decay if in fact they are used (as, say, the lone remaining hard copy).
Colin says, "Managers with too much to do, '80/20' agendas, and a host of new pressures piling up, tend to simplify the evidence, look for the broad approach, and aren't very interested in what look like redundant solutions. As preservation managers we fall for this, and so do our senior executives." Well, yes. What would you have us (and I mean you and me, Colin) do? The right answer to present to Baker is that society is not supporting preservation, not that librarians are doing a bad job of it. Meanwhile we have to make partial decisions, cost-effective decisions, bang-for-the-buck decisions, in the absence of alternatives. It becomes sentimental in its own way to bemoan the loss of these newsapers to the guillotine without considering the gain of preserved newspapers as a result of intervention. Losses at the margin? of course. How big is the margin? Let's talk about it. But it isn't managers-vs.-real-librarians here.
Meanwhile, the Baker article, like his previous ones, has enough truth in it that it needs to be dealt with. Not by flagellation of an unsupported profession, however, but by advocacy for more social support for doing the right things better. The "redundancy" that Colin and Donald talk about is very desirable; how about redundancy in funding so that we can experiment, and to keep more than one without losing another? That's the argument to be made. Our colleagues, as Colin rightly says, are not the enemy.

10. Mitchell Bishop replied to previous comments November 8:

A comment in response to Peter Graham and others. I find it interesting to see the phrase "sentimental reasons" used on a discussion list devoted to conservation. What exactly does this mean? I am disturbed by the idea of refusing to fund treatment or preservation of objects or material because those seeking to do so are motivated by "sentimental reasons." Who defines when the reason is "sentimental"?

11. Richard J. Cox published his views on this issue in a 15-page paper entitled "The Great Newspaper Caper: Backlash in the Digital Age," which can be viewed at <http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_12/cox/>. There are 67 notes with references on the last five pages.

12. Gary Frost published his reactions to both Baker's and Cox's positions, and discusses the issues, at <http://www.futureofthebook.com/stories/storyReader$97>: "Cold War Polarity in Preservation: Us vs. Them in the Mirror."

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