Preserving the ‘lost art’ of the newspaperAuthor-archivist crusades to save original editions in all their color and detail

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs


old newspaper

Nicholson Baker’s newspaper archive includes this issue of the New York World, from Sunday, Nov. 6, 1898. The original artwork on the left illustrates “New York: A Fairy City At Night, As Seen By Miss Liberty.” The comics section, right, features a full-color cartoon of Roughrider Teddy Roosevelt exhorting the masses with characteristic flair.
American Newspaper Repository photograph

24 April 2002 | In 1970, then-President Richard Nixon made some off-the-record remarks about the Middle East, which wound up in the Sept. 17 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. The White House protested so vehemently that Nixon’s remarks were omitted from later editions of the paper. Years later, a historian probing the Nixon years found that his candid comments were irretrievable: the Sun-Times reporter could not be found and the paper had not saved the edition.

Author-archivist Nicholson Baker, a campus guest last week, cites the incident as one example of lost history in his 2001 book, “Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.”

An avid collector of original newspapers, Baker shared a collection of late 19th century and early 20th century newpapers — full of bold colors, sensational banner headlines, humor and colloquialisms of the day – at his April 17 talk, “The Lost Art of the Newspaper.”

A Townsend Center Una Lec-turer in the Humanities, Baker has penned several novels and essay collections, including “The Mezzanine,” “Room Temperature,” “Vox,” “The Everlasting Story of Nory,” and “The Size of Thoughts,” in addition to “Double Fold.”

He says libraries often justify the move to microfilm by citing space issues and the fragility of newsprint.

Regarding the latter, “It’s not a problem of paper deterioration,” he says, noting that newsprint, which was introduced in the 1870s, “is an extraordinarily long-lasting medium if you bind it and keep it on a shelf.”

He believes the move to microfilm has more to do with creating revenue for digital archiving than libraries admit.

Newspaper repository
Baker is well known for his outspoken views on the preservation of original newspaper editions and his belief that American libraries, including such cornerstone institutions as the Library of Congress, have undermined journalism archives by putting papers on microfilm.

“Fifty years ago, after all, there were bound sets, even double sets, of all the metropolitan dailies safely stored in libraries around the United States,” he has been quoted as saying.

Shocked by the discovery several years ago that bastions of the written word, such as the British Library, were archiving newspapers on microfilm and tossing the originals, Baker took up the baton in 1999 and founded the American Newspaper Repository. He spent $150,000 to buy the only remaining copies of one-time American newspaper giants like the New York World, he says. Then he leased a warehouse in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, near his home, and recruited volunteers from the University of New Hampshire to organize “tens of tons” of old newspapers.

Baker has provoked great controversy among librarians with his crusade to reinstate the practice of saving original copies of newspapers. He says that photographing, rather than microfilming, original papers is remarkably inexpensive. Color photographs preserve the integrity of full-color newspapers, as well as the fine print and design details.
“We’re at a bizarre moment in history when you can have the real thing for considerably less than it would cost to buy a set of crummy black-and-white snapshots which you can’t read without the help of a machine,” he notes in the final pages of “Double Fold.”

About 5,000 newspaper volumes from Baker’s repository, many of which exist nowhere else in original form, are available to the public at They include, among others, issues of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and USA Today.

Preserving color, detail
Sharing some remarkable World War II-era banner headlines, garish advertisements, artfully drawn double-page spreads and four-color illustrations of Teddy Roosevelt addressing the masses, he says much of this would be lost on microfilm, which “wants to be either black or white.”

“So much color came into newspapers in the 1890s, and that’s just lost in microfilm,” he says.

The details are telling, Baker says. He points out headline fonts, point sizes and provocative wordings from newspapers of yesteryear.

“Shall we banish the electric chair and the gallows, as France has banished the guillotine?” reads a banner headline from the Nov. 25, 1906 issue of The New York World Magazine. “Edison fears hidden perils of the X-rays,” exclaims the New York World on front page of the Aug. 3, 1903 issue.

A Feb. 8, 1920 edition of the New York Tribune comically notes in a full-color illustration: “Scientists, agreeing Martians are super-race, believe that planet may be signaling to us.”

The caption elaborates: “The Martians are believed to have very large noses and ears and immense lung development, because of the rarefied atmosphere. Their legs are poorly developed, because matter on Mars weighs less than here and sturdy legs are not needed to bear their weight. Birds and butterflies are very large and beautiful.”


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