Read All About It #2 - Building a Future
This is the second in a series of blog posts discussing the challenges of caring for the national newspaper collection - how we’ve worked to preserve it and keep it accessible in the past and how we are going to do so in the future.
The national newspaper collection is on the move. Its current home at Colindale is no longer fit for purpose – either as a repository able to offer long term sustainability to the collection; or as a facility for readers to experience the modern, dynamic newspaper and news service that we want to offer. This recent BBC News report paints a vivid picture.
We know the collection is vulnerable, and if we don’t act now to move it into better conditions, we risk more of it falling into such bad condition that we will be unable to issue it without increased damage or loss, if at all.
Our survey says…
In 2001, as part of a three year project to survey all of the Library’s collections on all of its sites, we surveyed the newspaper collections at Colindale using the PAS (Preservation Needs Assessment Survey) methodology. The results showed that the newspaper collection is the most vulnerable of all of the Library’s collections and gave us a statistically sound picture of the state of this national collection. Our results showed that 34% of the collection at Colindale was unstable – 19.4% in poor condition, 14.6% unusable.
We know that improved storage is the best way of preserving the whole collection for the long term, and our new Newspaper Storage Building (NSB) is undergoing its final testing as I type.
However, this is just the latest – and most ambitious – effort to strike a balance between the long-term preservation needs of the collection and our duty to make it available to users.
The ties that bind
When reader facilities were added to the original Colindale repository in 1932, a bindery was also created on the 3rd floor. Here, new legal deposit intake was bound, and older papers were conserved – pulled down, de-acidified, repaired and re-sewn and re-bound. Treatment and binding styles varied depending on the age, type and size of newspaper - machine sewn; hand-sewn on tapes or cords, buckram and leather, half and quarter; finished in foils, mostly, but occasionally gold leaf.
As the conservation and binding of newspapers proved to be less and less cost and time effective over the years, benefiting only a small part of a vast collection, the bindery was closed in 2001. However, because of the work that was done, there are many thousands of volumes in perfectly good condition today that otherwise wouldn’t be.
Below, the bindery at Colindale in full production in the 1980s.
Lights! Camera! Microfilm!
We know that not everyone is a massive fan of microfilm. From a user point of view it has few of the advantages of digital and it’s not the real thing. But for the long term preservation of content it has proved its worth and without the large-scale microfilming programmes undertaken in the 1970s and onwards, a significant portion of our content would simply be unavailable today in any form.
Microfilming at Colindale began in the 1950s. In 1971 a dedicated microfilm unit was completed. At its height the unit operated 20 cameras and the BL produced (internally and externally) approximately 13 million frames of newspaper content annually
For we are living in a digital world, and I am a digital girl...(sorry, Madonna)
We still copy newspapers today, to increase access to content and to preserve the originals, but the format tends to be digital rather than microfilm. For instance the Library is working in partnership with DC Thompson Family History to digitise 40 million pages of 19th and early 20th century newspapers and make them available on the British Newspaper Archive website. Interestingly, where we can’t scan the original newspapers, the microfilm we created over the last 50 years is proving an invaluable alternative scanning source.
“What are you able to build with your blocks? Castles and palaces, temples and docks.” (from Block City by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Well, what we’ve been able to build with our blocks is a brand new storage facility for the national newspaper collection at Boston Spa, known lovingly as NSB – Newspaper Storage Building (we love to tell it like it is!). This state-of-the-art building will secure the long term future of the collection. In a complete (improved) reversal of storage fortune for the collection, it will be stored in the dark which will protect it from the damaging light levels that were unable to be controlled at Colindale.
The temperature will be 14⁰C and relative humidity 55%, a vast improvement on what was able to be achieved at Colindale. More importantly, it will be maintained at a steady level which overall will provide an environment for the collection that will slow down the rate of deterioration. Crucially, the oxygen level is purposely low at 14-15%, eliminating the risk of fire (ignition is impossible). The ingest and retrieval of newspapers is automated, which means in turn that the storage can be high density.
Lying down on the job
Not us – the collection! If you read our first post, you’ll know that the collection varies in size enormously, from volumes no bigger than a pocket diary to volumes weighing nearly 20 kg. Storing these large and heavy volumes vertically is causing physical damage, particularly where the boards are no longer attached and providing support, so in the new building the collection will be stored horizontally in stacks which will ease the pressure on the bindings and stabilise the text block. A ‘stack’ consists of a bottom board, a stack of volumes, and a top board. The boards and the stack are secured by straps. The stacks are stored on huge carrier trays in the storage racking, each holding various permutation of stack sizes.
It all stacks up
We’ve set a maximum stack height of 400 mm for each stack. Volumes will be grouped together by condition and stacked by size, with bound volumes being alternated spine to foredge to provide a stable stack with an even weight distribution. In order to do this, we’ve undertaken a massive data gathering exercise, determining the size of every item in the collection and assigning a condition rating of good, poor, or unusable.
The collection was divided into seven sizes or footprints, relating to the board sizes on which items will be stacked. Footprint 1 is any volume up to 380 mm (h) x 310 mm (w), while footprint 7 caters for volumes between 820-1012 mm (h) x 680-770 mm (w) – we have several hundred of these.
It’s a wrap
Knowing the condition of each item in the collection is important if we are to direct our resources appropriately and effectively. For this project, it was even more crucial because of the handling and transport logistics involved in moving from one building to the other. To protect items that are particularly vulnerable, we are shrink-wrapping those in poor and unusable condition.
It’s no small undertaking to move such a large and vulnerable collection half way up the country, so in our third post on this topic we’ll spend some time with Moves Manager Sarah Jane Newbery to find out what the challenges are – and how it’s all progressing.