Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Review: Do We Want to Keep Our Newspapers?

Penny Garrod reviews a book on libraries published by Office for Humanities Communication Publications.

If you want to get people to read a set of conference papers, and to engage with the topic covered - then pick a title in the form of a question. Do we want to keep our newspapers? - anyone with an interest in the media, and the power of the press in particular, will want to dip in to this slim illustrated collection to find out what it’s all about. Readers will want to know if there is a consensus about the retention of newspapers, why it is an issue, which newspapers are we talking about in this instance, and who is charged with keeping them, or failing to keep them. Read this book and you’ll find out.

This book is a collection of papers from a conference which took place in March 2001 at the University of London, under the auspices of the Institute of English Studies, the Institute of United States Studies, and the Institute of Historical Research. The conference was in response to the unearthing of a previously unknown fact namely “.. in the interests of economy and conservation, over the course of recent decades librarians had actively sought to destroy the printed record of much of the past century and a half, as reflected in ….the newspaper”.

“Shock, horror. Librarians are vandals” might be a suitable tabloid headline for this revelation. The American novelist and essayist, Nicholson Baker, was the person who discovered what was going on and published a long article in the New Yorker on 24 July 2000 dramatically entitled: “Deadline: The Author’s Desperate Bid to Save America’s Past”. Baker is very angry, and does not pull any punches - the current and previous heads of the British Library are criticised for sanctioning: “ a wave of book mutilation ….as digital money flows into libraries” (page 32). The scanning of documents requires bindings to be undone, and original collections become fragmented. The newspapers in question comprised roughly 7,000 volumes of original editions of American newspapers from the early part of the twentieth century. These originals were microfilmed and disposed of in accordance with British Library criteria for the retention and conservation of foreign newspapers. Microfilms, as many who have used them will testify, are poor black and white substitutes for original items - especially when the originals are quality newspapers, lavishly illustrated in colour. Baker illustrates the importance of these newspapers to researchers and historians: New York World in 1913 featured a series of articles which exposed the Ku Klux Klan, and also included snatches of Dorothy Parker’s memorable verse e.g. “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses”. Baker argues that the claim that newspapers are hard to preserve due to the acidity of the paper on which they are printed does not bear scrutiny in this instance; New York World was printed on quality paper, and was therefore easy to preserve and well worth preserving.

From the particular to the general we discover that it is normal practice for major research libraries to manage newspaper collections through policies of de-accessioning and destruction. The result is the permanent loss of primary sources to researchers and scholars worldwide. David McKitterick, Librarian of Trinity College, Cambridge, is refreshingly candid about the profession of which he is a member: “Most librarians do not like newspapers. They are bulky, difficult to store and to handle, heavy, made of poor paper, expensive to bind and difficult to organise and manage in reading rooms.” (page 6).

Together, the papers in this collection represent the case for the prosecution, the defendants’ plea of “not guilty”, and a balanced summing up at the end. Retention policies, the need to create space and poor communication, all led to the permanent loss of a series of newspapers of significant value. The contributors challenge us to think about how we treat original editions of newspapers. Why are they treated differently from other media? Are simulations poor substitutes for the real thing in certain circumstances? Does form convey meaning? Are some newspapers well worth keeping, and should they be judged for content and quality on an individual basis, rather than lumping them all together?

Librarians at the British Library or the Library of Congress are custodians of vast national (and international) collections for the cultural enrichment of us all. But they do not have infinite shelf space or resources, and the trend is towards digitisation for practical reasons. However, the research community stands to lose resources of significant historical and cultural value as a result of policies of de-accessioning and destruction and the question as to whether such activities are legal is raised in the course of the debate.

Could it be that a society which knows the price of everything, does not recognise the value of certain media, especially those which are difficult to manage and conserve? In the march towards online everything and 247 access, are we in danger of losing sight of the fact that, on occasion, there is no substitute for the original of a publication?

Oh, and by the way, some of the acronyms are superb: PADDI - Planning Architecture Design Database Ireland, and HOGARTH - Helpful Online Gateway to Art History. In essence - a thought-provoking read.

Author Details

Penny Garrod
Public Library Focus
Email: p.garrod@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/public/