The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 1
Jun 2001


Planning Guidelines for an Italian Newspaper Library Part 1

by Carlo Federici

1. The Physical Preservation of Newspapers

As no particular attention has ever been dedicated to the physical preservation of their newspapers and periodicals, Italian libraries have stored them in the same way they store books, because the materials of which they are made appear to be so similar. Newspapers are, however, made to last a single day, being then regarded as obsolete (and hence devoid of all interest) by the overwhelming majority of their readers. It should be borne in mind that in the case of the newspapers with the largest circulations, only a few dozen copies are "preserved" out of the 700,000-800,000 produced. This tiny proportion, less than 0.01%, is too small to be of any commercial interest.

It is therefore clear that the materials used in a product of this type cannot be expected to offer any guarantee of durability. By the same token, it would make no sense—and would indeed constitute an authentic act of historical falsification—to demand that a few copies of each daily newspaper be printed on durable paper for preservation purposes.

The creation of a newspaper library designed, among other things, for the physical preservation of newspapers, thus appears to be a sort of contradiction in terms, an endeavor to make something designed to survive for a single day last for centuries. As we shall see below, it is indeed possible to draft such a proposal, provided that we alter certain conceptions and a whole series of practices.

2. Binding and Microfilm

While the problem of preservation is often overlooked, the binding and microfilming of newspapers has been, and indeed still is, a central concern of librarians, who are firmly convinced that both operations make an important contribution to the protection of the originals.

In the case of binding, there is an evident tendency to equate newspapers with books, even though their origins and use are quite different. Among other things, it should not be forgotten that the binding of a codex was devised in an era when volumes were laid horizontally on shelves. The change to a vertical position led to a series of unforeseen effects that endangered even the most robust and functional of bindings. For the larger sized books (e.g. anthem books and antiphonaries), structural features closely resembling those of medieval bindings (wooden boards of considerable thickness, spine bands of cow hide, metal clasps, etc.) remained in use up to the 17th and 18th centuries, as they appeared to offer the only guarantee of assured durability. This could, however, only be assured in the case of horizontal storage. The switch to vertical placement, which has been customary in all libraries since the 16th and 17th centuries, presented structural dilemmas for bookbinders, which have never been satisfactorily solved. It is no coincidence that most large-sized books now display very serious damage to their bindings, even when structured by means of techniques closely resembling those of the Middle Ages.

Comparison with the structures of bygone centuries can prove useful, because the format of anthem books and antiphonaries is very similar to that of bound newspapers. The bindings of ancient books were designed to ensure a certain solidity, but this cannot be said of those now produced for newspapers. Though comparatively expensive, newspaper bindings offer no guarantee at all of the physical preservation of the contents.

Moreover, the binding of newspapers could be described as "unnatural," given that dailies are produced as separate sheets and their assembly is rarely justifiable except as a deterrent to theft. It is not clear however, how effective a deterrent it is. Given the great fragility of the paper used, it is by no means rare for larger or smaller portions of sheets to be removed (either deliberately or accidentally).

Regarding the binding of newspapers, the only advantage (protection against theft) is of negligible importance, and numerous disadvantages persuade us that the practice of binding newspapers should be discontinued as soon as possible.

In the case of microfilm, the situation is reversed and the pros greatly outweigh the cons. This is primarily because the process offers an alternative to direct consultation of the fragile original, whose large format exposes it to serious risk every time a page is turned. It is also evident that if agreement were reached with publishers (a point discussed in greater detail later on) to guarantee the copyright for the reproduction of microfilms of newspapers, large circulation could be achieved at low cost.

There are drawbacks, however, the first being the difficulty of handling microfilm. While the early centuries of the Christian era saw the transition from scroll to codex, the widespread use of microfilm in the 20th century appears to have taken us back to the scroll, given that the consultation of a photographic reel takes place in exactly the same way as that of papyrus scrolls some twenty centuries ago.

Another problem can arise in connection with the production of microfilms, which are not always of the highest quality. As is known, this operation is handled by outside firms that guarantee compliance with set deadlines for filming and delivery. At the same time, however, quality is quite an expensive commodity in this sector, and firms that notice loopholes in the control system might therefore seek to exploit them. If it is decided to develop this sector, it will therefore be essential to establish a quality control system.

Finally, and despite widespread notions to the contrary, the durability of microfilm depends on a series of steps, such as the creation of a master, the provision of at least one copy for current use, and preservation of the master in a controlled environment. It is essential to have two copies because the film undergoes a series of traumas every time it goes through the reader. The preservation of the master copies (when they exist and are of acceptable quality) is also greatly neglected. While this point is important for all items of cultural heritage, it is particularly so in the case of photographic material, whose average lifespan can be halved by exposure to relative humidity of over 50%.

In the light of the foregoing, and while the digital reproduction of newspapers should in any case be commenced as soon as possible, microfilming remains a positive method of preservation despite all its limitations. Though unquestionably in need of improvement, it provides a starting point in most cases for transfer from traditional to electronic media without subjecting the originals to any further stress.

3. Aims and Objectives of the Italian Newspaper Library

While it is unquestionably true that copies of all the newspapers published in Italy must be deposited by law with the two national central libraries, it is equally true that the latter do not preserve copies of all the local editions now published by many papers. It is therefore necessary to preserve not only the national edition but also all the editions with local news and supplements. In the same way, it can prove difficult for local newspapers of low circulation but a certain importance as regards documentation to gain admittance to the collections of the national central libraries.

It is therefore necessary to design an Italian Newspaper Library (INL) that does not simply constitute a repository for the original copies delivered by law to the various authorities at state, provincial and municipal levels. As we shall see, what is needed is a sort of decentralized INL capable of ensuring the physical preservation of the material while organizing the dissemination of information.

At present there appears to be no form of inter-library liaison regarding the preservation of newspapers. As a result, the same collections are held in many different libraries, thus leading to a serious waste of space and doing little to ensure the preservation of the original material. The INL should therefore be based on the following fundamental principles:

Carlo Federici is Director of The Istituto Centrale per la Patologia del Libro, Via Milano 76, Rome Italy. Tel: (39) 06 48 291 233-4, email: patlib@tin.it

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