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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Newspaper Microfilming Project Wraps Up

newspaper microfilming  

Preservation and Imaging Department Associate Head Todd Bachman stands with some of the newspapers included in the microfilming project.


June 16, 2010 – For scholars studying 19th-century Honduran society, or the immigrant culture of New York’s Chinatown in the early 20th-century, or the South African labor movement post-apartheid, newspapers of the era represent critical primary sources that capture the concerns and issues of the time. Following a nearly decade-long cataloging and microfilming project, researchers investigating these subjects and myriad others now have access to a massive collection of thousands of historic newspapers.

“Our goal was to preserve this material and make it accessible to researchers,” Bachmann said. “Now scholars know these titles exist, and they can get the microfilm if they need them for their research. But the fact that these titles are now recorded may also inspire other institutions to examine their holdings, and they may realize they have similar or complementary holdings, and that will add to the base of scholarly material that’s available worldwide.”

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In all, Bachmann said, the project involved nearly 3,000 domestic and foreign-language newspapers, more than 1,000 of which are unique to Harvard’s collections, and produced approximately 2 million frames of microfilm on more than 3,800 reels. The newspapers are cataloged in HOLLIS, Harvard’s online library catalog, and the microfilm is available for use either in Lamont Research Services or the Newspaper Microfilm Reading Room in Widener Library.

Launched in 2001, the project began as an effort to transfer material held in the 1940’s-era New England Deposit Library (NEDL) to Harvard Depository (HD), Harvard’s state-of-the-art, off-site storage facility for library materials. As the work progressed, however, librarians realized a significant portion of the collection held at NEDL was made up of newspapers, that many were in increasingly fragile condition and that cataloging records for the material were nonexistent or had been lost. It was then, Bachmann said, that the decision was made to catalog and microfilm the material.

The huge volume of material, Bachmann said, required the work of staff from several units, including Imaging Services, Conservation Services, Access Services, and Collection Development. As materials were transferred from NEDL, each title was evaluated by Imaging Services and Collection Development to determine if it had already been microfilmed by another institution. If it was discovered that a title was held elsewhere, the newspaper was not microfilmed as part of the project.

Newspapers that needed repairs or stabilization were sent to Conservation Services for treatment. Following treatment, repaired materials were returned to Imaging Services, where they were cataloged and microfilmed. Once the newspapers were microfilmed, they were returned to Conservation Services, where conservators created custom housings to hold the newspapers at HD. Items which were not microfilmed as part of the project were also cataloged, re-housed and transferred to HD.

The workflow proved so successful that several years into the microfilming effort an additional newspaper collection, the Slichter Labor Collection, made up of nearly 1,000 domestic and international newspapers relating to the labor movement, was folded into the project.

Given their fragile state, conservation treatment for the newspapers was a particularly challenging part of the work.

“For most of the material included in this project, the biggest factor we had to deal with was that they’re very fragile,” said Collection Conservator Lauren Telepak. “Often there were pages that were ripped or disjoined in some way – our goal was to prepare the papers to be microfilmed, so we did some very basic mending. In other cases, pages were folded, obscuring the text. We flattened the page to ensure it was readable, because we wanted the final product to be as clear and legible as possible for users.”

The worst-case scenario, Telepak said, were newspapers so degraded that they could not be handled without damaging them. To allow them to be microfilmed, conservators placed the most fragile items between mylar sheets, allowing Imaging Services staff to capture the material on microfilm.

In addition to individual newspapers, conservators were also confronted with bound newspaper volumes, Telepak said, many of which could not be microfilmed because tight bindings prevented them from being flattened. Since 2004, she said, conservators disbound 1,784 volumes, including some that revealed unorthodox binding methods.

“Most were relatively normal sewn bindings,” Telepak said. “But I worked with a German volume that used nails in the binding. I removed 13 nails from one volume to disbind it.”

As the decade-long project comes to a close, Bachmann said much of the credit for its success can be chalked up to the close and collaborative relationship which developed across the units involved in the work.

“Without Collection Development’s support, we could not have identified a lot of the titles in this collection because of language issues, and we would not have been able to determine which were the most important,” Bachmann said. “We also would not have completed this volume of work in this amount of time without Conservation support.”