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United States Newspaper Program

From 1982 through 2011, the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities collaborated in a unique partnership to fund and manage the United States Newspaper Program, a highly successful effort to locate, catalog, and preserve newspapers published throughout the United States, providing continued access for scholars and researchers to the "first draft" of U.S. history as recorded in the press. Projects were established and funded in each state and territory surveying every possible repository in the attempt to locate extant issues of every newspaper; inventory and catalog those titles in national database; and preserve endangered files on microfilm following national and international preservation standards.

The fragility of newsprint should be obvious to anyone who, having failed to inform either the delivery service or an accommodating neighbor, returns from a short vacation to find the news of the past few days rapidly deteriorating on the front stoop. Even a half-day in bright sun will discolor the front page, and touch will betray the imminent disintegration of the paper. We think little of it beyond the immediate bother. We all, readers and publishers alike, appreciate that in an age when news is considered to be old often before ink can dry on the page, newsprint remains a remarkably efficient, portable, inexpensive, and - most important - replaceable media for distribution. Newsprint is designed to disappear and to be replaced.

assorted U.S. newspapers For social historians, no other published record captures the day-to-day life of a community and the thoughts and habits of its citizens better than the local newspaper, and the loss of even an issue or two can be a break in understanding and interpreting the chain of events. No matter how great the city or how powerful its leading men and women, beneath the headlines can be found the ordinary daily record of the community's social structure, politics, health, cultural life, commerce, and sport. Newspapers are the single most important source for understanding the development of ethnic communities throughout the United States, and too often serve as the only source for understanding the development of the nation's small towns and regions. And for those of us who wish to understand our own family histories, newspapers are a rich source not only for the vital facts about our forebears, but also give us a glimpse of the way they lived; what they shopped for; what medicines they took; how they were entertained; what they celebrated; and what they feared. For historians, archivists, and researchers, though, the commercial advantages of newsprint quickly become a liability.

By the 1880's most mass market publications were being published on paper that replaced the more expensive rag content with untreated ground wood fibers, and additional substances to prevent discoloration and decrease porosity. Paper made using this process carries within itself reactive agents that will speed its deterioration. Excessive moisture will speed the production of acids that weaken the paper. Excessive heat and dryness will embrittle the paper. The cheapest and least stable form of this paper is newsprint. In addition to its obvious fragility, today's newsprint is especially susceptible to damage caused by heat, light, dampness, and airborne pollutants.

Conservators have developed a range of treatments and techniques that stabilize and in some cases even strengthen paper made from ground wood pulp, but the high cost and effort required can be justified only for very special items in a collection of high intrinsic value. Libraries, archives, and research collections that seek to provide continued access to large newspaper collections will opt to preserve the intellectual content of the publications through reformatting.

Washington Post reporting the fall of Saigon The Library of Congress and New York Public Library began microfilming newspapers in the late 1930's. The life-expectancy of early film, however, was less than a generation. Later developments in film stability and environmental controls, combined with refinements in high-resolution photographic equipment, provided assurance that microfilm produced, processed, and stored in adherence to national and international standards will endure into the next millennium and beyond. Appropriate bibliographic control is another essential component to preservation efforts. Accurate and authoritative citations assure that preserved material can be accessed, and that costly duplication of preservation efforts can be avoided. Comprehensive bibliographic information allows the researcher to determine where a title is held, what issues are available or missing, and any unique identifying elements such as editions or title changes. Through a coordinated effort, the United States Newspaper Project ensured that all appropriate standards and practices were employed by trained staff in each state during the project.

The United States Newspaper Project (USNP) supported projects in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. USNP projects were organized as cooperative efforts within each state, generally with one agency serving as the project manager. Project staff inventoried collections in public libraries, courthouses, newspaper offices, historical museums, college and university libraries, archives, and private collections. Detailed records of holdings enabled states and institutions to fill gaps and complete runs from holdings scattered throughout a state or in other states. The records produced also assist today’s researchers in locating the exact issues they wish to find. Bibliographic and holdings records were entered into a national database maintained by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and are now accessible throughout the world via OCLC's WorldCat service. Microfilm copies of newspapers created as part of the project are available to researchers anywhere in the country through interlibrary loan. Funded activity under the USNP was completed in 2011, at which time project staff had cataloged nearly 140,000 newspaper titles and produced microfilm of approximately 60 million pages of newsprint.

In 2003, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress (LC) embarked on a new partnership, the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). The NDNP is a long-term effort to provide permanent access to a national digital resource of newspaper bibliographic information and historic newspapers, selected and digitized by NEH-funded institutions (awardees) from all U.S. states and territories. This program builds on the legacy of the USNP by increasing access to the valuable information generated by that project and provides an opportunity for institutions to select and contribute digitized newspaper content to a freely accessible, national newspaper resource. For more information on the NDNP, see the Chronicling America website.

For technical information on microfilming newspapers see USNP Preservation Microfilming Guidelines.

For more information, contact the Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress, or the Division of Preservation and Access, National Endowment for the Humanities.

For additional reading see John Connell's bibliography; Newspaper and Periodical Articles 1983-1998.

For additional information on preservation of newspapers see Preservation Measures for Newspapers.

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  August 23, 2010
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