I look fascinated around me and all I can see is paper. Thousands of yellowy pages from all over the world are bound in enormous dusty old books, stored in some tall wood shelves behind me. The Athletic record, weekly journal of 1886; Good news, the amusing journal of 1893; the Daily Mirror of 1907. Walking among the narrow corridors, I feel that modern history hides in the irregular outline of those rare and smelly volumes.
At a time when most of the news is digital, I’m visiting the temple of paper-journalism, the Newspaper department of the British Library in Colindale.
Everything that has been published in the United Kingdom, in the former colonies and Commonwealth from the early 17th century until now, is classified by year or title in 45 km of shelves distributed on the six floors of this large brick building in North London.
Stored in the national archives collections, over 693,000 bound volumes and more than 400,000 reels of microfilms of British and overseas publications are ready to be consulted.
“Let’s have some fun,” says Mr Edmund King, head of the newspaper collection, and accesses to the online catalogue of the library. In a few minutes we find 42 titles of Swiss publications from 1800 to 1900, 1145 from France and almost 1500 about royal weddings in Europe. A list of the pages available appears on the screen of the computer, together with indications on where to find the original copy.
“Our collection of newspapers from Britain and Ireland is one of the biggest in the world,” Mr King explains proudly. “Think of a subject or a country, or both, and here we will find a lot of interesting material about it.”
We walk through a room where some people are cautiously consulting big fragile volumes and then we enter a section where other members are looking attentively into the small black monitors of the microfilm readers.
Microfilm is supposed to last longer than paper, as it can be consulted many times without being ruined and it’s much easier to store than books. That’s why most of the publications in the archive has been scanned and converted into films.
“But it’s a very long and expensive procedure: for every single page transferred to microfilm, the library spends £1 and only 30 people are working here at the moment.”
This is why the production of microfilms – which has been going since 1950 – has stopped last year, and only few selected copies are now bought directly from publishers.
Despite the job cuts, the money from the government has been invested in a new building with temperature and humidity control, which is currently under construction in North London and – Mr King says – would slow down the decay.
The quality of the paper is crucial for the durability of the copies. “Publications until 1860 were made with clothes, which is much more resistant. But with the wood pulp, you never know how it will maintain,” Mr King comments. He takes a green leather volume from the shelf – the collection of women’s magazines of 1936 – and remarks, concerned: “Look at these pages stuck together – it’s a shame…”
He closes the book and turns to the only empty shelf of the whole floor. Collecting continues with new publications – and there’s never been such a growth in published information as in the last 30 years. “We keep all we can, but we’re running out of space: that’s why we urgently need the new deposit.”
About 2,600 UK and Irish newspaper and weekly or fortnightly magazines are received – except from those consisting entirely of advertising – and other 250 overseas titles in European languages are also collected.
“We need to decide whether we want to keep a publication or not, depending on the content, format, price and frequency.” His eyes lights up: “It is a huge challenge because we need to follow the continuous evolution in journalism to record and categorize everything relevant. But the question is: how are we going to verify the quality?”
This is even more difficult with the spread of websites, where it’s very hard to guess if it’s worthwhile to keep it in the archive and also which among the different editions of the day should be filed. However, using technology would make the whole process of the recording easier and cheaper.
“We expect to go digital as soon as possible,” said Mr King, “but we need an agreement with publishers and the support of the government to make this happen.”
At the moment, the Legal Deposit Act 2003 – which states that a copy of any publication in print or “other medium” must be stored in the archives of the British Library – is not clear on the issue, and should be adjourned. “It will come,” he adds, faithfully, “it’s only a matter of time.”
Millions of published pages could be filed in a common hard disk, and could be classified in a database available to all the members of the library. No more restoration would be needed, because digital is inexhaustible: therefore, less expense and more time for the librarians to work on cataloguing.
We inevitably end up talking about the lots of forecasts on the end of print journalism: “Some people are still making money out of paper, and I think there must be a reason,” says Mr King. But even a passionate librarian has to recognize that this is not enough to override the costs of production and publication, when there’s an easier medium already in use.
“Although I really like paper, I think that if last-generation e-readers come cheap, you might not need a lot of large fleeting sheets.” He doesn’t look sad, as his words echoed among all these old volumes. “I guess print won’t disappear completely: it will cover niche publications on demand, especially magazines with longer texts.”
He smiles kindly and goes back to his work. Still fascinated by the atmosphere, I go downstairs and fill a request for “The freewoman”,a weekly female publication of 1911. In almost half an hour I’ll finally be able to leaf through one of these attractive old volumes – before it’s too late.