Preserving Barometers of History for 20 Years, the NEH Has Teamed Up with Historical Societies and Universities to Prevent the Disintegration of US Newspapers

Article excerpt

`EXTRA! Extra! Read all about it!" cry the boys hawking banner-headlined newspapers in the gangster movies of the 1930s. Tempted passersby would part with a nickle to catch up on the D.A.'s investigation into corruption at city hall.

Back issues from that era can still fascinate, but their readers are likely to be genealogists skimming the obituary page or historians noting the context in which women and minorities are mentioned.

"The history of the country is really contained foremost in its newspapers," says Jerry Martin, the assistant chairman for programs and policy at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

"If you think of the original reports of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or job lists that appeared in newspapers in the Great Depression - that's really the record of the life of the people," he says. Newspapers on microfilm

Thanks in part to the NEH, millions of pages of yellowed newsprint are being microfilmed before they crumble from the acid in their wood-pulp paper. The NEH is a 27-year-old independent federal agency whose mission includes historical preservation.

"Newsprint is so fragile that if it's not preserved, it's lost forever," Mr. Martin says. That makes the job not only important, he adds, but urgent.

Most major newspapers have long been microfilmed. For example, all issues of this newspaper since its founding in 1908 are available on microfilm, says the Monitor's head librarian, Polly McGee.

Also on film are journals whose rarity and historical significance are already recognized, such as "Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick," the first newspaper in the Americas, which Colonial authorities in Boston shut down after just one issue.

But thousands of others - county newspapers of record, military-base gazettes, or ethnic journals from the last century - have never been preserved for lack of money and are disintegrating into obscurity.

That danger prompted the NEH to launch the United States Newspaper Program (USNP) to catalog and preserve these irreplaceable historical records. Now halfway through its 20-year life, the USNP has reached 43 states and two US territories at a cost of $22 million.

Universities or historical societies apply to carry out the program within their own states. NEH grants pay a third of the cost, and the organization's funds and private donations cover the remainder.

Projects under the USNP have cataloged more than 200,000 newspaper titles. (All the issues of the Monitor represent one title.) Even the Virgin Islands had 57 newspapers at one time or another.

The job is complete in many states and under way in others. No organizations in Tennessee, Oregon, Vermont, or Washington, D.C. have applied for the grants yet.

Once the entire country has been covered, the number of titles cataloged is expected to reach 250,000. Thousands turned up so far were previously unknown to historians.

The newspaper titles are entered into an international database accessed through the Online Computer Library Center network found at large public and college libraries. The microfilmed copies are available by interlibrary loan.

For organizations carrying out the US Newspaper Program, the first step is to identify repositories of newspapers in their state. Second is to visit them to catalog their collections. Third is to microfilm the most important titles, including newspapers for which earlier microfilm is of poor quality.

Libraries, historical societies, and publishers' offices are the logical starting point in the hunt for old newspapers. Researchers also publicize the program so that private individuals will volunteer collections stored in their basements, garages, and barns.

In central Pennsylvania, individual collections held 40 percent of the newspaper titles found by researchers, says Jeffery Field, administrator of the program for the NEH. …