Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

02 December 2013

Read All About It #1 - What’s in the Papers?

“Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again, Say goodbye to Colindale. Say goodbye, my baby…” [with apologies to Billy Joel]

Black text on a blue background which reads, The oldest newspaper in the collection is French - The Gazette [Paris, France]. It is dated 30 May 1631 and was the official newspaper of the French Crown. Its title page reads "Recueil des Gazettes de l'annee 1631"

So. The Newspaper Library at Colindale finally closed its doors to the public on 8 November this year, having first opened them to readers more than eighty years ago. Like many of you, we’ll miss the old place for all sorts of personal reasons – for the things we discovered there, the friends we made there, the experiences we shared there.

But professionally, being charged with preserving its vast collection and keeping it available, we can’t be too sad, because we know that, by closing its old doors, we are opening a new one and taking a massive, exciting step towards a better, more stable future for the collection and a much improved experience for those who want to use it.


A black and white image showing rows of wooden desks on both the right and left hand sides, with a walkway running down the centre of the image. On the left hand side, the rows of desks leads to a wall with shelves of books. The walkway leads to a doorway in the background of the image. And each desk has a reading lamp on top of it.
The reading room at Colindale, c. 1970         


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The sun’ll come out, tomorrow…

The Colindale building opened in 1905 for the storage of newspapers, which means today that we have a double collection care whammy – a very vulnerable collection (let’s face it, newspapers were never meant to be kept for hundreds of years) stored in a very inappropriate building. The main enemies of organic material – light, temperature, humidity and particulates – were unable to be controlled as efficiently and cost effectively as we needed to at Colindale to ensure the future of the collection. This unsuitable and unstable environment was catalysing the natural deterioration process of the organic materials that make up the collection, which means we need to take urgent action.


The right side of the image shows a yellow brick wall with a number of windows. On the left are shelves of books, which the light from the windows is directly hitting.
Sunlight falls on the Colindale collection


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For example, there are over 450 windows in the stacks at Colindale – one at each end of every range – which has allows sunlight to do its damage visually and chemically over the years. Sometimes open and sometimes closed variously across the six floors of storage, they also make the temperature and humidity difficult to control and the fluctuations in these in particular are contributing to the condition of the collection.  Solar gain is augmented by old radiators in between every second window, part of an original heating system that can’t be controlled centrally or sensitively.


A large amount of thin books bound in green, which have faded to shades of green and brown, sit on bookshelves. These shelves are being hit by direct, bright sunlight.
Sunlight falling on the shelves at Colindale in North London


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An example of newsprint. The text in this image is talking about the Mattanphone, a new musical instrument claiming to be a combination of all instruments at once.

What’s in the papers?

For our readers and users, what’s in the papers is what it’s all about. The content of our Newspaper Collection is a rich and vibrant source of information that draws researchers from all over the world. But for those of us whose job it is to care for the collection and keep it available, what’s literally in them (what they’re made of), is more important, because it has a significant impact on their life expectancy and our management of it.

Getting enough of the right fibre

Newspaper is made from cellulose fibres and up until the mid/late 19th century, the most common source for this was recycled textiles, or rags (largely, but not exclusively, from cotton and linen). Rag papers have lovely long, strong fibres of pure cellulose and, although all cellulose-based papers produce acid-based by-products through natural degradation, kept in the right environment (more of that later), and handled appropriately (more of that, too), they will stand up naturally well to the challenges of time and use.

But cotton and linen rag was not a sustainable source for newsprint, and a shortage of rags combined with an increased demand for paper led to development and use of wood as the primary source of paper pulp – and inadvertently presented us with a major preservation headache… 

Black text on a blue background which reads, Ground/mechanical wood pulp is derived from physically grinding down the wood producing the weakest form of paper - the lignin is not removed and the fibres are shorter, resulting in weaker paper. Chemical wood pulp breaks the wood down chemically, removing the lignin and doing less damage to the fibres.Wood

The problem that wood pulp papers give us is that wood contains lignin (amongst other things), a complex polymer that binds the cellulose fibres into a cohesive structure. And the trouble with lignin is that it’s light sensitive. It will degrade and discolour on exposure to light, weakening any paper that contains it.

If you leave a newspaper in the sun for just a few days you’ll see the start of this degradation process by the discolouration of the exposed pages. Leave it longer and the pages will become brittle and will physically break when handled.


Magnified images showing wood pulp on the left and rag paper on the right. The magnified wood pulp fibres are short and thin, and don't overlap much. They almost look like a bunch of insects' legs in this image. This is contrasted with the rag fibres on the right, which are thicker and more intertwined. These almost resemble a variety of seawood wrapped around each other.
Wood fibres (here on the left) provide a weaker bonding matrix than rag fibres


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Brittle newspaper can be virtually unmanageable. If you’ve ever requested a newspaper item and have been advised that it is not able to be issued for preservation reasons, frequently (but not always) it will be because the item is too vulnerable to loss of content and further damage as a result of brittle paper:


Four images showing various volumes of newspaper. In all cases, the newspaper is very brittle, with many pieces breaking way from the sheet like confetti. the paper is brown in colour.
These volumes of regional papers from 1908 show the effect of brittle paper. Sometime brittle paper affects only certain areas of the page (often the outer edges) and only parts of a volume, but some are brittle throughout and their weakened pages detach readily. Handling is difficult and loss of content inevitable. Neither of these volumes would be available for issue under normal circumstances



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When you realise that of the approximately 282,000 bound volumes of newspapers currently at Colindale, over 90% are published after 1850 and fall into that window where rag pulp was starting to be superseded by wood pulp, you get an idea of the scale of the challenge we face in trying to preserve the collection and keep it available.

Stopping the rot

Another challenge we face is 'red rot'. Atmospheric sulphur dioxide absorbed into leather bindings over many years oxides to form sulphuric acid which dissolves the leather to red powdery material of no physical strength. While leather degradation by red rot can’t be reversed, the rate can be slowed by improving the environmental conditions in which volumes are stored and reducing their exposure to natural light.


A row of books on a bottom shelf showing rust-coloured spines which are severely degrading due to red rot--the spines appear flaky.
These volumes of Scottish papers were originally quarter bound in blue leather, but the leather on the spines where the spines are exposed to the atmosphere, has been seriously degraded by red rot
A closeup of a spine with flaky red rot leather. A small bit of blue marbled paper is also visible.
These volumes of Scottish papers were originally quarter bound in blue leather, but the leather on the spines where the spines are exposed to the atmosphere, has been seriously degraded by red rot

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A closeup of a spine which has almost no leather left. There is a small amount of red-coloured leather, but for teh most part you can see the spine lining (a linen or similar tan-coloured cloth).
We can see that the leather on the spine has completely degraded away, exposing the spine lining which was glued up using a hot-melt glue. The kettle stitch and cords are exposed and continued use will result in this volume completely disbinding


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Size Matters

Brittle paper and red rot are common conditions that we have to dea l with, but these are often compounded by the size of many of the items in the collection.

“…and my pocket sonnets are yours, Miss Marianne!”  Thus Mr Willoughby confirmed the gift of his teensy little bound volume of Shakespeare sonnets to Marianne Dashwood in the film version of Sense and Sensibility.

Imagine the alternative newspaper version:

“…and my bound volume of the Argus, Clarion and Trumpet Jan-Dec is yours, Miss Marianne! You fellows bring her on up! Steady...Curses, mind the lintels! This bookcase shall have to be rebuilt to accommodate her. And the reading table much extended and reinforced…she’s of monstrous size (no, no, not you My Love…!)"

The book sits on a table with a mechanical pencil to the let of it. the book has a marbled covered, mainly in tones of yellows and blues, with a green-blue coloured spine.
Left: This is one of our smallest volumes, the Birmingham Stock Exchange Monthly Investment List. The volume here is dated 1910 and, no taller than a pencil, measures 14cm x 8.5cm and weighs only 100g

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Binding newspapers into volumes was a practical way of keeping them together and protecting the pages from physical damage as well as, to some degree, harmful light and particulates. But this means that we have many items in the collection that are of significant size and weight, which makes handing very difficult. This can lead to physical damage of stable material and significant damage to unstable material.

By contrast, this volume of the Alloa Journal & Clackmannanshire advertiser 1895 [left-most volume below], while still not the largest volume in the collection, measures 82.5cm x 61cm and weighs in at an impressive 17.51 kg.

Three images next to one another. On the left is a shelf of books bound in black leather with gold tooling on the spines. The tops of the spines are severely damaged, likely from people using their fingers to grab the top of the spine when retrieving books from the shelf. There is also one book, toward the left, which shows the boards sticking up further than the spine. The top right image is a closeup of that book, with the boards clearly protruding higher than the spine. And the bottom right shows a mangled spine of the book--pieces of the pages are jutting out at odd angles and clearly damaged.
In the example above the text block, over time and with use, has dropped out of its binding under its own weight. With both boards detached the text block is no longer properly protected. It is not only suffering damage but is increasingly difficult to handle.

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Next post: Paper, paper everywhere, and not a page to read…

We know our newspaper collection is a brilliant resource for many different people for all sorts of reasons, and it’s crucial to us that we continue to make as much of it available as possible. In our next post, Building a Future, we’ll look at the steps we’ve taken over the years to provide content where originals are too fragile, including conservation, microfilming and digitisation; the effect on the collection of the current building and the preservation justification for moving; and we’ll look inside the new building and explore its benefits and advantages.

For more information on the newspaper moves programme see our Newspaper Moves web page.

Sandy Ryan


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