The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 2
Aug 2001

Planning Guidelines for an Italian Newspaper Library: Part 2

by Carlo Federici

The need for a newspaper library or program for Italy was argued in the June issue. Here the author describes how it could be carried out. We pick up the narrative in the third section, which is headed "3. Aims and objectives of the Italian Newspaper Library." The four fundamental principles are: physical preservation; the possibility of storing selected newspaper collections in buildings not part of a national library; reproduction in an easily reproducible medium; and large-scale distribution.

3.1. How to Ensure the Maximum Physical Preservation of Newspapers

An outline is given above of the problem of physical preservation and how it could appear to involve a contradiction. In actual fact, studies carried out in recent years have made it possible to delineate a possible solution to this problem, starting from the fact that the oldest library material, namely papyrus, whose composition differs little from that of newspapers (being slightly inferior if anything) can be preserved satisfactorily in a microclimate characterized by very low levels of relative humidity (e.g., in the desert). After being transferred to the British Museum (and hence to an environment of appreciably greater humidity), the same papyrus materials fell victim to irreversible deterioration.

It is therefore historically evident that a dry microclimate is conducive to the preservation of materials possessing little inherent durability. Similar conclusions have also been drawn by scientific studies demonstrating the crucial importance of high levels of humidity in the accelerated aging of paper. Water also plays a key role in the chemical reactions of cellulose deterioration, the kinetics of which are far slower in the absence of humidity.

If the newspapers and periodicals held by the INL can be stored in conditions of low relative humidity, it will therefore be possible to ensure their preservation for a considerably longer time. The creation of dry environments entails, however, special architectural structures and considerable expenditure of energy, which means higher costs, indirect atmospheric pollution, and the risk of the environmental parameters being adversely affected by power cuts or the breakdown of air-conditioning systems.

Efforts have therefore been made to create restricted microenvironments by enclosing newspapers in containers within which it is far easier to maintain constant conditions of low relative humidity. The containers used are large boxes made of a composite material (polyethylene, aluminum and polyester) capable of providing excellent protection against light, dust and accidental damage. It should be noted, for example, that if the material involved in the Florence flood of 1966 had been sealed in enclosures of this type, no damage whatsoever would have been incurred. Furthermore, in the event of fire, aluminum provides a relative degree of protection against flames (though this obviously ceases when the outside temperature rises above 70°C) as well as water and the other substances used to extinguish the water.

Experiments were initially carried out with vacuum packing with a view to obtaining greater compaction and reducing the harmful effects of air and atmospheric pollutants. Subsequent reconsideration led to the replacement of vacuum conditions with a small amount of nitrogen in order both to lessen the tension induced in the walls of the containers by the vacuum itself and to minimize the chemical degradation that could in any case occur within the closed microenvironment. A reduction of relative humidity was also obtained due to the fact that the method involved the introduction of dry nitrogen from tanks of pure gas into containers in which vacuum conditions had been created. It should not be forgotten that great success is currently being achieved by a European research project, in which the Istituto centrale di patologia del libro (Central Institute of Book Pathology) is also involved, on the use of nitrogen to disinfest cultural heritage materials. This procedure could therefore also guarantee protection against biological agents with no risk whatsoever for the environment or the health of personnel, given that nitrogen accounts for nearly 80% of the air we breathe.

Preconditioning in an environment of low humidity is required before the material is placed inside the enclosures. Air-conditioned chambers with 40-50% relative humidity have so far been used for this purpose, but the possibility is being considered of experimenting with levels of 28-30%, which may offer even stronger guarantees of durability for the material enclosed.

A point of by no means marginal importance is the fact that the boxes cost less than one dollar each. It should in any case be borne in mind that this price could easily be halved in the event of large-scale use. Each container could house at least one week's issues of a large-circulation newspaper, leaving a margin of safety that would allow it to be opened and closed at least 5 or 6 times.

With all the numerous pros, there is a single con, which was brought fully to light during very recent experiments (January 2001) carried out at our Institute on disinfestation in modified atmospheres. The study demonstrated that the containers used for disinfestation, which are wholly impermeable to water in liquid form, display a certain degree of permeability to water as vapor. This is, of course, a problem that should be solved fairly soon given the great technological advances achieved in the synthetic polymer industry, and in particular as regards packaging materials. It was decided that the problem should in any case be mentioned, not least as an example of the obstacles encountered every day by applied research on the preservation of library materials.

On the other hand, the equipment required to create vacuum conditions, introduce the nitrogen and seal the envelopes costs about $10,000 at present. Once again, more favorable terms can certainly be obtained, and work is in any case proceeding to develop simpler systems making it possible to achieve the same results at much lower cost.

3.2. Towards a "Decentralized" Italian Newspaper Library

The planning of a decentralized INL appears to be advisable for two main reasons. The first concerns the history of collections. Numerous collections of newspapers are in fact held by libraries of very different origin and type, which would certainly—and quite rightly—be reluctant to hand over an often considerable portion of their holdings to an external structure serving as a repository for all Italian newspapers and periodicals. The fact that the preservation of the original materials would be guaranteed in the physical environment of the INL does not appear to be sufficient grounds to justify an act of alienation (in real if not legal terms), which would also clash with the history of the collections concerned, and not only in terms of library science.

The second reason for decentralization looks to the future and has to do with the safety of the original material. While it will unquestionably be necessary to plan the premises of the new INL in such a way as to rule out practically any possibility of accidents threatening the safety of the material stored there, it is equally unquestionable that imponderables exist such that any forecast could prove groundless. It thus appears advisable not to restrict preservation in sealed containers solely to the copy stored at the INL. As is known, there are libraries at every level of territorial division (especially the provincial and municipal) in which copies of the periodicals published in that area must be deposited by law. A preservation plan could therefore be devised whereby the national edition of each newspaper is stored at the INL, while local papers and local editions of national papers could be stored by the libraries endowed with the right of legal deposit for the area in question.

3.3. The Reproduction of Encapsulated Material

The basic drawback of storing newspapers and periodicals in sealed containers is connected with the restricted availability of the originals for direct consultation. While it is true that closing the container is not an irreversible operation and that such containers can be reopened and closed again, this should unquestionably be regarded as an exceptional event.

On the understanding that this material should be available for use exclusively on alternative media, it will now be necessary to address the choice between traditional microfilming and digitization.

Our essential preference for digitization has already been indicated, but it should be stressed that the operation must involve the page in its original physical structure. While the text of newspapers is readily available in electronic form, it is less common to find a CD-ROM reproducing the page exactly as it appears to the eyes of its regular readers. Such reproduction obviously requires far more computer memory than simple text, but the general plan of the INL should be based on this option and on making this immense database accessible online.

3.4. Consultation Procedures

Given that access to texts should be guaranteed for all library users, and would be possible from any suitably equipped terminal in the case of an online system, it will be necessary to decide whether the individual CD-ROMs produced through the digitization of newspapers should also be made available.

The first problem concerns the copyright held by the publishers. It is, however, believed that agreement can be reached with the latter to allow the use of the texts reproduced for cultural purposes. One solution might be to leave a certain margin of time (one month, six months, or even a year) before making newspapers available online so as to reduce the publishers' commercial interest to the bare minimum. The payment of royalties could also be considered in the case of production and marketing of CD-ROMs.

The second problem concerns the computer memory needed to create the above-mentioned database. It may be worth pointing out that the CD-ROMs referred to here, which would constitute the fundamental elements used in building up the database, do not correspond to those currently marketed by some newspaper publishers. The latter contain only the text of the articles printed and omit all the accessory information (hierarchical position of articles, photographs and drawings, advertising, etc.), which is not something that historians—i.e., the major users of such materials—would happily forgo. The digital reproduction of one newspaper page as image requires far more computer memory than pages and pages of text in the CD-ROMs now on sale.

To conclude, it should be pointed out that technological developments have recently been registered in connection with these very problems, and it therefore appears likely that a solution to these difficulties will also be found in the fairly near future.

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