History from the Dark Room

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by Hugo Zayas-González

Among those who in an amateur or professional way like to study the past it is well known that documents are their raw materials. Archives and historical libraries have been developing paper-based as well as digital collections, and by taking advantage of technological advances made efforts to keep them in usable conditions. Such is the case for Clarke Historical Library which launched a still ongoing program in 1967 to preserve local newspapers from Michigan communities. In this way, Clarke Library is not only striving to keep “the single most important record from which a community can be documented” usable, but also works to make this material available for a global scholarly community through its Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal. In simple words and paraphrasing a current academic expression, through this portal Clarke Library is setting Michigan local history in a global perspective.

In addition to the intellectual content found within the newspapers, there are technical reasons for preserving them. A definition of preservation says that it is “the protection of cultural property through activities that minimize chemical and physical deterioration and damage and that prevent loss of informational content.”[1] Therefore, the primary goal of preservation has to do with prolonging the existence of cultural property through two types of activities. On the one hand, there are those activities aimed at preventing damage to paper-based collections by storing them in proper buildings with suitable humidity and temperature conditions, and designing a disaster plan. On the other hand, treatment, replacement, and reformatting are the proper activities that address existing damage. In the case of Clarke Library’s newspaper project, it is mostly focused on protection through reformatting both its own and other publishers’ collections. However, Clarke Library’s project focuses not only on damaged or historical newspapers. It is remarkable that through its continuing program they are microfilming contemporary issues as well. At this moment, for instance, they are filming last year’s issues of the Clarkston News, the Cheboygan Tribune, and the Gaylord Herald Times among other titles.

Newspapers from the nineteenth century onward are printed on inexpensive, machine-made, wood pulp paper that was not manufactured for longevity, which makes it necessary to protect newspaper collections through microfilming and digitizing projects. Even though we are living in an increasingly digital world, digitization and digital preservation do not make traditional preservation methods unnecessary. Digitization is simply another option in the preservation toolkit, especially since preserving digital objects long term still presents inherent difficulties. Although microfilming has now become the least user-friendly medium for access to newspaper collections, this technique of preservation provides a master copy from which relatively inexpensive duplicates can be easily made. Furthermore, unlike digital media which requires computer access, microfilm can be read by the naked eye with only a light source and magnification. Digitization consists of making digital copies of non-digital objects, and one of the main disadvantages concerns the continuing change in technology (software and hardware) which affects the user’s expectations.

Thus, the Clarke Library’s DigMich Newspapers project faces the requirements of global and digitized users but still grounds its digital copies on microfilming from the dark room…

[1] Northeast Document Conservation Center, NEDCC, “Preservation 101,” https://www.nedcc.org/preservation101/session-1/1what-is-preservation