Over the years you or your other family members may have been storing old newspapers or clippings that chronicled events you experienced, were involved in, or were of significant historical importance. Maybe you or a relative kept a copy of the newspaper published the day World War II ended, or the day the first moon landing occurred, or while perhaps a bit less monumental, a clipping from when your wedding or the birth of your child was announced in the local news. Looking at old newspapers and clippings is a timeless way to preserve a memory and encourage a smile. Yet these same newspapers and clippings are very fragile artifacts, and they just won’t hold up very well over the years if they’re not properly stored.
Why Do Newspapers Break Down?
Old newsprint paper was—and largely still is—made of very inexpensive materials: tiny particles of ground up wood that were boiled into a slurry of fibers and turned into sheets. A substance known as lignin holds the fibers together, as the Minnesota Historical Society has noted, and lignin contains acids that cause the fibers to break down over time. In turn, the paper yellows and hardens, and the inks often fade. As mentioned, even in this day and age most newsprint papers are still made this way, with an expected lifespan of only 50 years or less. The pH of paper proved to be the most significant factor influencing eventual strength loss and color deterioration.
By following the right archival procedures, however, you can minimize potential damage. Consider the following tips for storing old newspapers and precious clippings for a lifetime of memories and enjoyment.
Make a Photocopy if Framing
If you would like to display an important or sentimental newspaper clipping in a picture frame, don’t use the original. Even behind glass this irreplaceable artifact isn’t safe. As explained in an article in History Buff, light can fade ink and yellow paper. The ongoing deterioration process may also cause the paper to stick to the glass, further threatening its survival. By using a photocopy—perhaps a color copy to preserve the tonalities of the original—you get the benefits of enjoying the clipping while archivally preserving the original. If you truly want to use the original in a frame, it should only be exposed to incandescent light (no florescent light and absolutely NO direct sunlight), and matted with high-quality acid-free mat board. Perhaps the best solution, whether your framing a good photocopy or the original, is to use a complete frame kit, as this all-in-one kit includes acid-free foamboard backing and, quite importantly, ultraviolet (UV) light-filtering glazing that can help preserve the paper and its precious contents.
Keep Your Originals Safe
Though your original newspapers or clippings may not be on display, they are still in danger of accelerated self-destruction (caused by natural lignins and acids—see above) if not cared for properly. Correctly storing old newspapers begins with keeping these artifacts safe with “double protection”: archival polyethylene bags and acid-free boxes. These types of museum-quality bags and boxes are designed to minimize “acid migration” from one old newspaper to another; keep out dust, moisture and harmful household pollutants; and keep your newspapers and clippings in a dark, dry environment. A news storage kit is perfect for this task, as it includes an archivally safe 14 x 18″ acid-free box, a reusable desiccant canister to keep things dry, and a set of 10 polyethylene bags to hold individual newspapers.
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With regard to clippings, since they are often not as large as a full newspaper they can be stored in a number of other types of archival enclosures. These include acid-free flap envelopes, crystal clear bags, acid-free file folders, and a document storage kit—an all-in-one way to safely preserve your clippings.
Storing Old Newspapers Well
Once a newspaper or clipping is safely inside an archival polyethylene bag and an acid-free box, you may be tempted to place it in the first available storage space that comes to mind—usually this means the attic or the basement. Don’t go there, as the wide temperature and humidity variations common to these environments may reverse the steps you’ve taken to preserve your old newspapers. Potential moisture—from natural dampness or a leaky water heater in the basement or a leaky roof in the attic—can easily destroy both your acid-free storage boxes and the newspapers within. In a similar vein, heat accelerates the chemical process that causes newspapers to break down, and humidity can accelerate acid migration or cause the paper to warp. This breakdown also attracts insects, yet another threat to the long-term survival of your cherished newspapers and clippings. The bottom line? When storing old newspapers keep them in a dry and dark environment such as closet in your “living space” on the first or second floor, as these are less likely to experience large temperature and humidity swings and are far less vulnerable to the problems associated with attics and basements.
Handle with Care
Storing old newspapers using the correct archival materials and procedures is important, but so is careful handling. If you plan on pulling your old newspapers or clippings out of storage to look through them, always wash your hands to remove any dirt, lotions or naturally-occurring finger oils. Regular soap and water are fine for this job, just make sure your hands are dry after washing. You may also want to consider using white cotton inspection gloves as an extra layer of protection. Always lay old newspapers out on a clean, dry surface, and make sure it is not someplace where the cat can jump up on it if you’re called away for a moment. Lastly, unfold old newspapers and clippings very carefully, as time is usually not kind to creased, yellowed, and possibly brittle newsprint.
Stop the Process
Even if you follow these guidelines, old newspapers will still slowly breakdown over time due to their internal acid/lignin content. If you’re concerned about this process, you can consult a paper conservator who can professionally neutralize these harmful chemicals through a process known as deacidification. Don’t attempt to do this yourself, however. Many of the chemicals used to treat old newspapers are dangerous if handled improperly, so should you wish to pursue this procedure please leave it to the professionals.
Don’t Let Anything Stop You
While there are apparently many things that can negatively impact the survival of newsprint and clippings, if the proper preventative steps are taken when storing old newspapers you should be able to preserve and enjoy them for years to come.
If you have any additional questions or would like more information on the archival storage and presentation materials that are right for you, please contact us here at Archival Methods. We’re always there to help with any archiving, storage, or presentation questions you may have.