`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
"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,"
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
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
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
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
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. …