Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

4 posts categorized "Newspapers"

22 October 2020

On light: conserving material for our exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights

Alexa McNaught-Reynolds, Conservation Exhibition and Loan Manager

Two of the items selected for display in our exhibition: Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights appear to be in good condition but have vulnerabilities that may not be immediately obvious. In Conservation we strive to understand every component of an object in order to recommend the best course of action for their long-term care.

Item 1. NEWS.REG170: Daily Mirror front cover: Tuesday 28th March 2017

Vulnerability: newspaper is not made to last

This is an important item in the exhibition, highlighting how strong working women are still sometimes represented in the media today. Newspapers are produced from poor quality wood pulp that is inherently unstable due to something called lignin, and they are not made to last. Lignin makes the paper acidic and when placed in direct sunlight, as many of you will have seen, newspapers turn yellow and become brittle very quickly.

Controversial front page of the Daily Mirror on Tuesday 28th March 2017 showing Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon. The headline reads 'Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!'

Figure 1: Controversial front page of the Daily Mirror on Tuesday 28th March 2017 (NEWS.REG170)

We strive to protect our newspaper collection by storing them in alkaline buffered material, in a stable environment free from exposure to light sources. These actions significantly slow the degradation process.

But what about when one is requested for exhibition? While we are familiar with the vulnerabilities of newspaper generally, we are not sure how stable the media will be under exhibition conditions. The exhibition environment is very stable and the newspaper is subjected to low levels of light. While light level is low, with no UV, and the time is restricted, we are not sure how much of an effect this limited light exposure will have on the media.

In order to get a better understanding of how the media will fair under exhibition conditions, we will be monitoring this item closely. To do this, we are measuring the colour by using simple colorimetry. This is completed with 'Lab*' colour measurements which is a method of representing colour using numerical values, in a similar way to the more familiar RGB or CMYK systems. One of the particular advantages of the Lab* system is that it is based on the way in which the human eye and brain observe colours and determine differences between colours. 'L' represents lightness, from 0 (pure black) to 100 (pure white), while 'a' measures the green-red axis (negative values are green and positive values, red) and 'b' measures the blue-yellow axis (negative values are blue and positive values, yellow). The system is capable of detecting colour changes smaller than the human eye can observe, and so gives us another tool to help us provide the best possible stewardship for the items in our collection.

Controversial front page of the Daily Mirror on Tuesday 28th March 2017 showing Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon. The headline reads 'Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!' This image has been labelled with yellow lines and numbers showing where colour measurements were taken.

Figure 2: Front page of the Daily Mirror with areas marked in yellow indicating where colour measurements were taken.

Highlighted in the image above are the areas where the colours were measured. The same areas will be re-measured at the end of the exhibition. This will detect any colour changes that have happened (hopefully none) and will inform the future display limitations of this item and for other similar contemporary newspapers.

Item 2. Add MS 88899/6/13:  Greenham fence wire from the Angela Carter archive

Vulnerability: highlighter ink loses colour under light exposure

This item is a piece of wire cut from the perimeter fence of RAF Greenham Common Airbase during anti-nuclear protests by the Women's Peace Camp and sent to the novelist Angela Carter who was against nuclear weapons. It was attached to a record card through two punched holes in the centre with typed notes above and below the wire.

Greenham fence wire piercing a white flash card from the Angela Carter archive with high-lighted typed message.

Figure 3: Add MS 88899/6/13:  Greenham fence wire from the Angela Carter archive with highlighted typed message.

Although the item itself is in good condition, highlighter pen was used over the top of the typed message. Highlighter pens contain fluorescent colours which are notoriously light sensitive; they will not retain their colour over extended periods of light exposure. For this reason, we will be displaying this item at our exhibition under low light levels but we will also be limiting future display in order to preserve the bright colour.

At the British Library we aim to make everything as accessible as possible so that everyone can enjoy the collection and see the items in their original condition. However, in order to preserve the collection some items do need to be restricted for various reasons, such as fragile condition, or in these cases, to limit their light exposure and preserve the bright colours for future researchers to see.  Although this means that some items can only be able to be exhibited for short periods, there are alternative solutions for display. For items that were mass produced or have multiple copies, it is possible that a replacement can be found. When an item is unique or other copies are not available, we can suggest a high-quality facsimile be made, this way the viewer can see the uninterrupted exhibition story. In this way, we can maintain the integrity of our collection for as long as possible, as well as finding ways for everyone to enjoy it in the meantime.

Fortunately, both original items will be displayed in ‘Unfinished Business: The Fight for women’s Rights’.

14 January 2015

135th Anniversary of Printer Joel Munsell's Death

Joel Munsell (14 April 1808 - 15 January 1880) was a United States printer, publisher and author who had the vision to record useful and contemporary information in the field of papermaking during the 19th century in his 1956 publication Chronology of  the Origin and Progress of Paper and Papermaking. Towards the end of his career in 1875, Munsell penned and privately printed some wonderful recollections of his childhood in Northfield, Massachussets, where he was born and educated (1). Following an introduction to the wheelwright's trade by his father, the young Joel Munsell apprenticed for the printer's trade in the office of the Franklin Post and Christian Freeman newspaper in Greenfield, MA, about 12 miles south of Northfield, where he eventually became office foreman.

A portrait of Joel Munsell. He wears a tux and a bow tie.

CC-by Joel Munsell. Credit: History of Albany County New York

In 1826, an eighteen year old Munsell relocated to Troy in New York before making his way to Albany in 1827, where he would remain until his death. Munsell initally gained employment as an office clerk in the book-store of book dealer John Denio (2), and quickly rose up the ranks to become manager - a position he resigned from in order to secure a position as a journeyman printer. While at Denio's Munsell edited and published a semi-weekly paper called the Albany Minerva which he established in 1828.

It wasn't long before Munsell left the bookstore and took up a position as a compositor in a local newspaper where he stayed for six years. By 1836 the young printer had acquired enough money and knowledge to enable the establishment of his own printing business. He purchased a job printing office in Albany where he was publisher and editor of the New York State Mechanic (a Whig campaign paper) from 1841-1843. His publications in 1842 included The Lady's Magazine, The Northern Star and The Freeman's Advocate, followed by The Spectator in 1844, the Guard and Odd Fellows' Journal in 1845, and subsequently the Unionist, the Albany State Register, the Typographical Miscellany, the New York Teacher, the Albany Morning Express and the Albany Daily Statesman. Munsell was also responsible for publishing Webster's Almanac and the New England Historical and Geneological Register from 1861-1864.

A print showing the Munsell Printer building. In the foreground in a horse drawn carriage.

CC-by From Bannister's Joel Munsell, Printer and Antiquarian in Albany, New York, image courtesy of the Rare Book Library, New York State Library.

His dedication to typography and hard work led his business to become one of the most suscessful in Albany. His first book, Outline of the History of Printing, was written in 1839, although he is best-known for Chronology of Paper published in 1856, with extended various editions in 1857, 1864, 1870 and 1876.

In 1834, Joel Munsell married Jane C. Bigelow, a marriage which was to last twenty years until her death. They had four children together. Munsell later remarried and wed Mary Anne Reid with whom he had another six children. At the age of seventy-two, Joel Munsell died in Albany, New York, on 15 January 1880. His son, Frank Munsell, succeeded him in the printing and publishing business.

A large Munsell Collection is held at the New York State Library which acquired his extensive collection of notes and books on printing and local history. These notes were later edited and annotated forming an "Historical Series", contributing greatly to the historical literature of this area. Syracuse University's Bird Library holds a number of Munsell editions, and there are also significant Munsell collections at the Albany Institute of History and Art and the American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, MA, both of which Munsell had an active membership with and to whom he sent copies of most of the material he printed throughout his life.

Joel Munsell had a long and distinguished career and to this day is held in high regard in the world of printing and publishing. See references below for more information on his life.

Christina Duffy


(1) Joel Munsell, Reminiscences of Men and Things in Northfield as I Knew Them, from 1812 to 1825, Albany, 1875.

(2) Cyclopædia of American Biographies (1903)/Munsell, Joel 

(3) Bannister, Henry S. "From the Collector's Library: Joel Munsell, Printer and Antiquarian in Albany, New York." The Courier 11.2 (1974): 11-22.

13 January 2014

Read All About It #2 - Building a Future

This is the second in a series of blog posts discussing the challenges of caring for the national newspaper collection - how we’ve worked to preserve it and keep it accessible in the past and how we are going to do so in the future.

The national newspaper collection is on the move. Its current home at Colindale is no longer fit for purpose – either as a repository able to offer long term sustainability to the collection; or as a facility for readers to experience the modern, dynamic newspaper and news service that we want to offer. This recent BBC News report paints a vivid picture.

We know the collection is vulnerable, and if we don’t act now to move it into better conditions, we risk more of it falling into such bad condition that we will be unable to issue it without increased damage or loss, if at all.

Our survey says…

In 2001, as part of a three year project to survey all of the Library’s collections on all of its sites, we surveyed the newspaper collections at Colindale using the PAS (Preservation Needs Assessment Survey) methodology. The results showed that the newspaper collection is the most vulnerable of all of the Library’s collections and gave us a statistically sound picture of the state of this national collection. Our results showed that 34% of the collection at Colindale was unstable – 19.4% in poor condition, 14.6% unusable.

We know that improved storage is the best way of preserving the whole collection for the long term, and our new Newspaper Storage Building (NSB) is undergoing its final testing as I type.

However, this is just the latest – and most ambitious – effort to strike a balance between the long-term preservation needs of the collection and our duty to make it available to users.

The ties that bind

To the bindery workshop!
Wooden sign directing to the bindery workshop on the 3rd floor in gold lettering

When reader facilities were added to the original Colindale repository in 1932, a bindery was also created on the 3rd floor. Here, new legal deposit intake was bound, and older papers were conserved – pulled down, de-acidified, repaired and re-sewn and re-bound. Treatment and binding styles varied depending on the age, type and size of newspaper - machine sewn; hand-sewn on tapes or cords, buckram and leather, half and quarter; finished in foils, mostly, but occasionally gold leaf.

As the conservation and binding of newspapers proved to be less and less cost and time effective over the years, benefiting only a small part of a vast collection, the bindery was closed in 2001. However, because of the work that was done, there are many thousands of volumes in perfectly good condition today that otherwise wouldn’t be.

Below, the bindery at Colindale in full production in the 1980s.

Colindale in the 1980s
Image showing the binders working in the Colindale in the 1980s

CC by Newspapers ready for sewing, by machine and by hand

Colindale in the 1980s
Image shows workers in the bindery preparing newspapers for sewing

CC by Forwarding and finishing

Lights! Camera! Microfilm!

We know that not everyone is a massive fan of microfilm. From a user point of view it has few of the advantages of digital and it’s not the real thing. But for the long term preservation of content it has proved its worth and without the large-scale microfilming programmes undertaken in the 1970s and onwards, a significant portion of our content would simply be unavailable today in any form.

A worker in Colindale microfilming a large volume. The book is on a stand and there are lights above
A worker in Colindale microfilming a newspaper

CC by Microfilming at Colindale began in the 1950s. In 1971 a dedicated microfilm unit was completed. At its height the unit operated 20 cameras and the BL produced (internally and externally) approximately 13 million frames of newspaper content annually

For we are living in a digital world, and I am a digital girl...(sorry, Madonna)

We still copy newspapers today, to increase access to content and to preserve the originals, but the format tends to be digital rather than microfilm. For instance the Library is working in partnership with DC Thompson Family History to digitise 40 million pages of 19th and early 20th century newspapers and make them available on the British Newspaper Archive website. Interestingly, where we can’t scan the original newspapers, the microfilm we created over the last 50 years is proving an invaluable alternative scanning source.

“What are you able to build with your blocks? Castles and palaces, temples and docks.” (from Block City by Robert Louis Stevenson)

New storage building
Image of new storage building, the building is a mixture of greys and blues, it has a yellow door and railings along the front of the building

CC by The new storage building, with the main void at the back and the support building in front

Well, what we’ve been able to build with our blocks is a brand new storage facility for the national newspaper collection at Boston Spa, known lovingly as NSB – Newspaper Storage Building (we love to tell it like it is!). This state-of-the-art building will secure the long term future of the collection. In a complete (improved) reversal of storage fortune for the collection, it will be stored in the dark which will protect it from the damaging light levels that were unable to be controlled at Colindale.

The temperature will be 14⁰C and relative humidity 55%, a vast improvement on what was able to be achieved at Colindale. More importantly, it will be maintained at a steady level which overall will provide an environment for the collection that will slow down the rate of deterioration. Crucially, the oxygen level is purposely low at 14-15%, eliminating the risk of fire (ignition is impossible). The ingest and retrieval of newspapers is automated, which means in turn that the storage can be high density.

Lying down on the job

Not us – the collection! If you read our first post, you’ll know that the collection varies in size enormously, from volumes no bigger than a pocket diary to volumes weighing nearly 20 kg. Storing these large and heavy volumes vertically is causing physical damage, particularly where the boards are no longer attached and providing support, so in the new building the collection will be stored horizontally in stacks which will ease the pressure on the bindings and stabilise the text block. A ‘stack’ consists of a bottom board, a stack of volumes, and a top board. The boards and the stack are secured by straps. The stacks are stored on huge carrier trays in the storage racking, each holding various permutation of stack sizes.

It all stacks up

We’ve set a maximum stack height of 400 mm for each stack. Volumes will be grouped together by condition and stacked by size, with bound volumes being alternated spine to foredge to provide a stable stack with an even weight distribution. In order to do this, we’ve undertaken a massive data gathering exercise, determining the size of every item in the collection and assigning a condition rating of good, poor, or unusable.


Footprint plot
Graph showing the seven sizes or footprints, relating to the board sizes on which items will be stacked

The collection was divided into seven sizes or footprints, relating to the board sizes on which items will be stacked. Footprint 1 is any volume up to 380 mm (h) x 310 mm (w), while footprint 7 caters for volumes between 820-1012 mm (h) x 680-770 mm (w) – we have several hundred of these. 

It’s a wrap

Knowing the condition of each item in the collection is important if we are to direct our resources appropriately and effectively. For this project, it was even more crucial because of the handling and transport logistics involved in moving from one building to the other. To protect items that are particularly vulnerable, we are shrink-wrapping those in poor and unusable condition.

Shrink-wrapped volumes
A pile of shrink-wrapped volumes being tested for stability

CC by A stack of three shrink-wrapped volumes, being tested for stability

Three images showing the construction of the building from the beginning and throughout the building process
The installation of a giant crane inside the building

CC by One of the giant cranes is lifted into place. These will run up and down each aisle delivering carrier trays through a sealed air lock to the work stations in the support building

Another image of the giant crane inside the building, this image also has several site workers in it which highlights the vast size of the crane and space
Image of the light grey and yellow work stations with fencing behind them

CC by The workstations in the support building

Building stacks
Two workers building stacks inside the test facility. With many large half leather bindings with brown spines in two piles

CC by Stacks being built in a dedicated test facility

It’s no small undertaking to move such a large and vulnerable collection half way up the country, so in our third post on this topic we’ll spend some time with Moves Manager Sarah Jane Newbery to find out what the challenges are – and how it’s all progressing.

For more information on the newspaper moves see: and follow us @BL_CollCare.

Sandy Ryan

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