Another straw in the wind – or perhaps, rather, a scrap of paper blown away. The British Library has closed its newspaper library at Colindale in north London, and is moving the newspaper collection to Boston Spa in Yorkshire, where a ‘new purpose-built Newspaper Storage Building (NSB)’ has been built.
Many historians of my generation will remember working at Colindale, and will greet its closure without much regret. Colindale is on the Northern Line. When I worked there in the late 1970s, it was a featureless dormitory suburb completely lacking in charm. The library was just far enough from the tube station to regret forgetting an umbrella, but there was nothing you could do about the wind.
There was nowhere to eat apart from a dire caff, the windows opaque with condensation, which served bacon and eggs and mugs of stewed tea. There was also a pub, but I couldn’t afford it, having spent more than I could afford getting there on the tube, and in any case it was full of journalists from News International. They were all writing books about something or other, while on strike (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) against Rupert Murdoch’s plans to move his newspapers from Fleet Street to Wapping.
Everyone worked at Colindale at some stage, because the newspaper library held one of the best collections of newspapers in the world.
During the heady years of the British Empire, one of the jobs of colonial administrators was to send back copies of all the local newspapers to the Colonial Office. They were an important source of information about colonial conditions, and frequently – just as they are today – a source that was at odds with the official government line. Governors must often have gritted their teeth as they bundled up (as they saw it) packages of inflammatory, libellous anti-government propaganda, from New South Wales or Jamaica or Upper Canada.
How did Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy feel, I wonder, when the splendidly named People’s Advocate and New South Wales Vindicator in 1854 published a report of his son cheating at cards? The editor was sued for libel and fined £200, but mud sticks.
Some of these papers were very ephemeral, and without the Colonial Office copies, many would have disappeared forever.
Microfilm, and now digitization, has made it unnecessary for most people to see the original copies any longer, which is just as well because newspapers don’t have a long shelf life. Their new home at Boston Spa is designed to warehouse the papers rather than to read them. They will be in low oxygen conditions, which should help preserve them, and they won’t be handled as much – although the library promises that ‘if the required item is in good enough condition to travel’ they will supply it to readers at St Pancras in 48 hours.
Newsprint was never designed to be permanent. Unlike books, newspapers were designed to be read – then the paper would be used for some other purpose, as wrapping paper or whatever. (Better a newspaper than the records of the Dutch East India Company, many of which were sold as scrap paper by French troops in 1814).
Paper itself went through a transformation during the 19th century. Traditionally, paper was made from rags, but demand for paper grew rapidly with increased literacy and the expansion of the popular press in the 1830s and 1840s. There just weren’t enough recycled rags to meet the demand for cheap paper – not even with the addition of waste from the cotton manufacturers.
Various alternatives were considered – rice paper, bamboo, paper made from potatoes (not a good idea during the 1840s).
In the 1850s wood pulp became the standard, a cheap alternative to rag – and who needs trees anyway? Then as now, the argument was that wood based paper could be made from the wood chip left over when trees were cut down for other purposes, but the demand for newsprint has been insatiable. A lot of trees have died to meet that demand, either directly or through clear felling forests to replace them with softwood plantations.
Newsprint is poor quality paper, acidic and brittle as it ages. After a day of leafing through old newspapers, my hands would feel dry and tender – not something they warn you about when you start researching. Because the paper was inadequately sized, it acted like blotting paper, blurring the wet ink and making it hard to read (and to digitise).
News editors in colonial Australia struggled with paper shortages, because the newsprint was imported, and they had very little quality control.
On 10 June 1843, the Sydney Morning Herald announced ‘To Our Subscribers’ that ‘The non-arrival of our usual supply of large paper obliges us to return to the size on which our present impression appears, for a few weeks.’ The following year The Australian announced that they would stick with the tabloid, rather than going to broadsheet, because
As a sufficient supply of paper of the requisite size seemed to depend on precarious contingencies, we, in beginning our Daily Series, deemed it better to publish on a small sheet, than to commence on a scale which the paper-market might not allow us to maintain, and which would thereby entail a disappointment, as annoying to our subscribers as to ourselves. (21 March 1844)
Maybe if they had been a bit less long-winded, they might have had more paper available.
I read a lot of 1840s newspapers while researching my PhD, and such announcements were common. They weren’t pertinent to my research, so I never noted them down. Now, of course, through the wonders of Trove Newspapers, I found those references within minutes.
But only because I knew they were there, from my reading all those years ago. There’s no way, though, of easily tracking the days when papers disappeared entirely because of shortages, or when the dark brown patches and thickened edges mark periods when the quality of paper was particularly poor. You can’t quickly see which months are thinner, because the editor decided to cut the number of pages from 8 to 4, or from 4 to 2.
Digitization is wonderful, and I am grateful to it every day. But something is lost, too, by never having to read my way through the sequence of newspapers, discovering which day they run the sports results, how much more goes into the Saturday edition, getting the hang of shipping schedules from the advertising pages. It’s fun to be distracted by advertisements – but informative too, when you realise that key advertisers could make or break a newspaper (see The Radical Effect of Holloway’s Pills).
You pick up unexpected conjunctions, too. I’ll always remember the shock of reading this brief obituary in the Australasian Chronicle:
You see W.A.Duncan was the editor of the Australasian Chronicle at the time, and I had just been reading the editorials and articles he must have written while living through the nightmare of watching his daughter die of scarlet fever. Old newspapers are real, not just digitised images floating in the ether – and they are created by people of flesh and blood, too.