Skip to Main Content

Directory of U.S. Newspapers in American Libraries: A Guide for Researchers

Physical Preparation of Newspaper Issues for Microfilming


The U.S. Newspaper Program was successfully completed in 2011. The following information is presented for archival and research purposes relating to the creation of the Directory of U.S. Newspapers in American Libraries and subsequent newspaper programs like the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). For current NDNP information, view the Library of Congress' National Digital Newspaper Program website.

Man checking microfilm reels
Untitled photo, possibly related to: Washington, D.C. Developing microfilm. 1942. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The primary tasks involved in the physical preparation of newspapers for preservation microfilming will include removal of issues from their bindings, flattening of folded or creased pages, minor repair of tears and mutilations, and stabilization of the material for processing and filming when necessary. As noted elsewhere in these guidelines, physical preparation should be integrated with collation to the fullest extent possible, with the intent that the material is handled "one time only." Finding the best and most efficient way to do that will depend upon available workspace, equipment, and staffing, and thus will vary from project to project.

It is worth a reminder here that condition of the materials is one of the criteria for selection for preservation. In many cases, materials will simply be too deteriorated to allow filming, and the project will be forced to protect the file as efficiently as possible and set it aside for a potential "last use." However, with a reasonable amount of care and effort many brittle papers can be successfully reformatted to microfilm.

Ideally, information about the physical condition of the newspaper file and the environmental conditions in which it is maintained are available from the statewide inventory. Survey forms may even include rudimentary condition information (e.g. "B2," "B4," - breaks in a specified number of folds; or "BT," - breaks to the touch). In any case, each newspaper file should be analyzed to determine the type and extent of preparation work involved. Work assignments and camera planning can then be done more efficiently, and the overall work flow can be better organized.

Mold and mildew precautions

Under no circumstances should preparation work be performed on newspaper volumes or issues exhibiting any amount of mildew or active mold until the file has been thoroughly cleaned. A conservator should be consulted about proper handling methods prior to removal of such material from its storage location. Apart from concerns for the migration of spores to uncontaminated materials in other collections, the risk of serious physical reaction subsequent to contact or inhalation is significant and must be avoided. At minimum, should any evaluation of material known to be moldy or mildewed be required for inventory or preservation purposes, staff must wear appropriate personal protection equipment. Unless an exhausting fume hood is available, handle the material outdoors in an open, well-ventilated area.

Treatment Options

Treatment options discussed in this guide are limited to the preparation of newspapers to optimize their legibility and long-term retention as microfilmed images, not to facilitate their long-term storage as artifacts or valuable ephemera. A conservator should be consulted for complex problems. Note also that treatment options may differ depending upon the need to retain the original files, or the requirement to return borrowed files after preservation reformatting. Options discussed here include removal of issues from bindings and separation into individual sheets, relaxation (humidification), ironing and/or flattening, tape mending, and the use of polyester folders (Mylar) as support structures to allow handling of brittle pages at the camera. Fuller conservation treatment is beyond the scope of this guide.

The option of filming bound volumes of newspapers

Recent criticism of preservation microfilming projects has focused on the practice of disbinding prior to filming. In all but the rarest cases, however, commercial binding of wood-pulp newspapers can actually contribute to their deterioration. Unless the binding has provided a book structure that will allow the pages to lie flat when opened, and the binding materials do not stress the paper, only volumes of rare, unique rag stock newspapers should be considered candidates for filming with bindings intact provided that:

  • Issues and pages are in the correct order,
  • The inner margins are wide enough to permit filming,
  • Sewing is flexible enough to allow the volume to be opened flat without damaging text,
  • A non-damaging book cradle is used to support the volume while filming, and
  • Glass or plexiglass can be used as needed to keep the opened pages and prevent gutter shadow.

Because of the additional handling time required to film newspapers while still bound, cost is a factor. This is true regardless of whether the papers are being filmed in-house or shipped to a microfilming agency. Vendors may base frame costs on the premise that a set number of frames are routinely filmed per hour. The cost increases in proportion to the number of pictures taken below the expected number in a given hour.

Any possibility of text distortion or loss must be fully discussed with a representative of the lending location and documented on the loan form. If dis-binding is not permitted, and there is likelihood of loss or distortion of text due to the material being filmed bound, a full frame disclaimer target indicating that this condition was in effect at the time of filming should be placed at the beginning of the reel.

Removal of issues from bindings

Newspaper issues should be removed from bindings and separated into individual sheets to ease handling at the camera and to allow the full text to be captured without "gutter shadow" and other distortions from appearing in the filmed images. In larger operations, a guillotine, large board shear, or other alternative means of cutting through whole volumes may be available. Extreme care should be taken to assure that the text block is squared so that sufficient margin is allowed and that text is not being cut away. Large cutting devices should only be operated by technicians experienced in working with bound materials.

Steps in the manual disbinding process normally include: removal of cover boards and end sheets, removal of glue and sewing from text block, and trimming glue and thread from inner margin edges of pages.

Removal of cover boards, end sheets, and spine cover. Open the front cover board fully to allow examination of the binding structure along the spine. It should be possible to work a razor knife along the inner margin edge and cut away the cover board. If there are blank end sheets, pull them carefully away after cutting binding threads with a sharp, pointed knife and separate from glued strips of paper as needed with a micro-spatula; or trim them away with a razor knife (be sure to place a rigid board below if cutting onto the text block instead of away toward the opened cover board, if still attached).

Note: End sheets may be attached to the top pages with additional sewing, staples, or glued strips of paper. Threads should be cut before pulling sheets away from text block. Use a spatula-type staple remover to free the sheets.

If a considerable portion of the text along the inner margin is concealed beneath the glued-on strip, it may be possible to insert a backing beneath the page and moisten the strip with water. Allow the water to soak in, then carefully separate the strip from the page. Dry, flatten, and tape-mend the page as needed. Beyond the use of water to dissolve adhesives, a chemical solvent should only be used after consultation with a conservator and with full knowledge of and accommodation for any health hazards associated with the solvent.

It is important to take the time to extract boards and end sheets without damaging the first and last pages of volumes, which are often in poor condition to begin with. The pull of the sewing each time a volume is opened may have put considerable stress on the inner margins. Rag pages may be torn where sewn. Wood pulp pages are commonly found broken completely away from the structure of glue, binding cords, and sewing.

Pull the spine cover from the glued surface of the text block. If this presents a problem, use a razor knife to carefully trim the spine cover away. When working with brittle paper, it may be useful to remove only the top cover board and the spine cover, leaving the bottom cover to serve as a support board while removing the glued backing from the text block.

Separation of pages or issues from text block. The way pages are removed from the text block depends on the type of paper (rag or wood pulp) and the disposition of the original material. The safest approach is to remove backing, glue, and thread from the text block and separate the pages by opening them and carefully pulling them away, page by page, or issue by issue (in some instances disbinding may be permitted only if as many issues remain intact as possible). Depending on the condition of the material, this method can be integrated into the collation process - though some may find it easier to complete one procedure at a time.

For large bound volumes that were heavily glued, it may become a chore to separate individual pages. An alternative method is to lift 1/4" - ½" sections away at a time, reaching in from the outer edge to cut through remaining glue and thread and remove each section from the block. The sections can then be trimmed using a guillotine, large board shear, or razor knife with 48" metal safety rule and cutting mat. There must be sufficient inner margin to guarantee that text will not be lost.

Extremely narrow inner margins, hardened glue, tight sewing and recessed cords, especially in conjunction with brittle paper, may make it necessary to try one of the following approaches.

Treatment of hardened glue with methylcellulose. On some older bound volumes of newspapers the glue can be quite thick. The chemical compound methylcellulose can be safely used to soften previously hardened water soluble, animal or vegetable glues (methylcellulose will not work with resinous synthetic adhesives). The compound is available from conservation supply sources and scientific chemical suppliers.

Methylcellulose application and removal. Protect the work surface with a layer of waxed paper. Cover the top page with a support board and place waxed paper along the inner margin edge of the text block. When mixed as recommended by the supplier, apply the prepared methylcellulose with a pastry brush to the entire surface of the glued text block edge. Loosely cover the applied cellulose with waxed paper to inhibit drying. Let it interact with the hardened glue for 3-4 minutes, then scrape away the methylcellulose and the old glue with a wide metal spatula. Wipe the excess glue onto a sheet of waxed paper as work progresses. Methylcellulose must be removed before it dries. The best approach is to have an experienced conservator demonstrate the process before attempting to do it for the first time.

More than one treatment may be necessary to remove all the old glue. Let the edge dry thoroughly between applications. Depending on the anticipated extent of use, prepared methylcellulose mixture can be kept indefinitely provided it is stored in a tightly sealed glass or polyvinyl container. Brushes and spatulas must be washed with water promptly after each use to prevent hardening.

After treatment with methylcellulose, it may be possible to separate the pages from the block individually as they are turned or, if there is enough inner margin, in sections that can be trimmed using a guillotine, board shear or 48" safety rule, razor knife, and mat.

Trimming backing, glue, and thread with guillotine or board shear. If the material is not to be retained after filming and there is sufficient inner margin to guarantee there will be no loss of text, the entire volume can be taken apart into sections and trimmed using a guillotine or large board shear. Extract 1/4" to ½" sections of pages from the text block. Secure one section at a time firmly beneath the holding bar.

It is important not to bring the holding bar down too hard onto a section of brittle pages. A manually controlled hydraulic guillotine works best. Table model board shears have floor pedals that should be stood on at all times while bringing the blade across the paper to avoid dragging (grabbing and tearing instead of cutting). Cut as little of the edge as necessary to evenly trim the pages.

Trimming backing, glue, and thread with a razor knife. This method can be used if methylcellulose is not an option (e.g. if the binding is more recent and a synthetic adhesive has been used) and neither guillotine nor board shear are available. Protect the work surface with a cutting mat. Place the volume lengthwise along the edge of the work surface, with the spine end of the text block extended slightly over the edge. Cover the top page with a support board and place a 48" metal safety rule along the edge to be trimmed. Trim carefully, removing small amounts at a time rather than attempting to trim all the backing and glue away at once.

Caution: Always work the knife away from your body - and away from the arm you are using to secure the safety rule.

If the paper is brittle, be careful not to cut into the portion of the text block close to the end caps, where glue may have been more heavily applied. The entire corner of the text block might be pulled away while trimming.

Organization of disbound pages. It is important to keep disbound and trimmed sections of newsprint in the correct order and stacked as neatly as possible, particularly if collation has not been performed at this stage.

Paper relaxation (humidification) and flattening

The problem: newspapers were never intended to be kept as permanent records and, like today’s versions, were distributed, sold, and stored folded in half. Unbound issues were rarely flattened out when stored. Papers distributed by mail are rolled or folded into quarters or eighths. Many bound volumes of newspapers, regardless of their storage environments, retained not only their original folds but acquired additional (often pronounced) creases radiating outward from binding cords. Regardless of the type or number of folds, most newspapers require flattening to reduce or eliminate gutter shadow and other distortion from the filmed images. For relatively current newspapers, simply laying them flat in a stack tall enough for the weight of the stack to serve as a press is often all that is needed. Others will need ironing and/or humidification and flattening prior to filming. Remember, of course, that it is easier (and much more time-efficient) to relax, flatten and tape-mend brittle paper before filming than to require the camera operator to continuously have to mend pages and sweep away crumbs at the camera board.

Filming pages under glass or plexiglass is an option for pages that will not break apart when weight is applied. Test shots may need to be taken to eliminate surface glare. Per-frame costs may increase because pages are large and the labor of lifting and laying down the glass adds time and effort to the filming process. Some camera stands are equipped with mechanically-assisted glass specifically for this purpose. If legibility will not be affected and the pages will not break apart as slight creases or ripples are flattened, arranging to have the camera operator film them under glass eliminates a step from the preparation process and should be given consideration.

Relaxation (humidification) and flattening. Paper is hygroscopic, easily taking up and retaining moisture. Controlled amounts of moisture can be safely introduced into both rag content and wood pulp newspaper pages, allowing them to be relaxed for flattening. The entire process - from the introduction of moisture through flattening and drying - should be conceptualized and experimented with prior to full-scale implementation of treatments. Techniques used will vary depending upon the size of the operation, availability of equipment, and space needs. There is no one single accepted methodology. Remember that a simple trash can and mesh bag may be used as a humidification chamber - if the materials are handled properly.

The humidifying and flattening procedures outlined below are intended for relatively "normal" newspaper files, i.e., files that may be brittle but can withstand some handling. If the paper is so brittle that any attempt to unfold it causes it to break, consult with a conservator to determine treatment options.

Humidification using support structures, blotters, spun polyester, and weights. As collation work proceeds, varying amounts of folds and creases may be noted throughout a given newspaper file. Where the amount of pages requiring treatment is small, for each page place a blotter on a smooth surface (e.g. 3/4" plywood with birch veneer on both sides, or 1/4" plexiglass). Place a layer of spun polyester (optional) on the blotter. Place the page on the polyester and lightly mist-spray with water (do not over-moisten!). Once the moisture has worked its way in, it should be possible to smooth out the creases by hand, working from the center outward. In some instances, it is easier to smooth out the page under spun polyester. Once the page has been smoothed out, replicate the layers in reverse order: spun polyester (optional), blotter, support structure. The "sandwich" structure is built as follows:

  • [ weight ]
  • [ plywood or plexiglass ]
  • [ blotter sheet ]
  • [spun polyester(optional)]
  • [ newspaper page(s) ]
  • [spun polyester(optional)]
  • [ blotter sheet ]
  • [ plywood or plexiglass ]

The polyester serves as a support structure and as a protective barrier (in the event there is any water soluble binding adhesive remaining on the edges of the pages). It may also prevent the unwanted repairs resulting from a damp page sticking to a wet blotter. Its use is recommended, but optional.

Several "sandwiches" can be stacked atop one another and weighed down or placed in a large book press for at least 4 hours. Anything from cloth or buckram-covered bricks to window sash weights to can be used. After the initial humidification, the wet blotters must be replaced with dry ones and the dry "sandwiches" weighed down for at least another 24-hour period to assure that the pages stay flat.

Caution: When working with brittle material that has a noticeably rippled surface, the use of boards alone without weights is recommended. The added weight (or pressure from a book press) will cause unwanted breakage.

Do not introduce too much moisture into the papers, and be sure to dry them thoroughly while flattening. Otherwise, surface distortion (cockling) may occur. It is always worth the effort to experiment with duplicate pages and consult with a conservator if the technique appears not to be working.

Batch process humidification. Provided there is enough space in the work area, the simplest and most economic method of humidification is to introduce moisture into as many pages as possible at the same time. Remember not to get the papers too wet.

Tabletop method. Plastic sheeting can be placed on one or more large tables and covered with a layer of wet blotters, followed by a layer of spun polyester. Pages or issues are placed on the polyester layers and lightly mist-sprayed. The entire length of the table is then tented over with plastic sheeting and secured around the edges with weights. The papers should be relaxed and ready for flattening within four hours. Substitute dry blotters for wet ones when the material is placed between plywood or plexiglass layers for flattening.

Tabletop humidification chamber. For dealing with brittle folded material, which will break with attempts to unfold it, an inexpensive humidification chamber can be built using plastic sheeting secured with "duct" tape around an oblong box-type frame built using PVC pipe and fittings. The framework can be built to fit atop a long worktable. Vinyl-coated wire mesh "laundry room" racks bolted to the PVC frame (using aluminum bolts and wing nuts) can accommodate a considerable number of issues at a time.

Blotters are placed on the racks and sprayed with water. A layer of spun polyester is placed over the blotters, and issues are spread out across the polyester, several pages per layer, several layers (issues + polyester) at a time. Shallow trays filled with water are placed beneath the racks. Depending on the amount of moisture and ambient room warmth, issues are ready to be flattened in two to four hours. Because the turn-around time is relatively quick, leaving the front flap open between uses should suffice to prevent mold or mildew from forming, but it is always worthwhile to check periodically as work progresses.

Batch process flattening. Once issues have been relaxed, they should be secured for drying, 6-10 pages at a time, using the "sandwich" structure noted previously (plywood or plexiglass + dry blotter + spun polyester + newspaper page(s) + spun polyester + dry blotter + plywood or plexiglass). The stack of layered structures must be placed under weights or secured in a book press at least overnight (preferably 24 hours) to derive the maximum benefit from the humidification process.


If ironing is required, it must be done before any tape mending. Heat will only melt the tape. Doubled-over folds or severe creases can be flattened using spun polyester and a tacking iron or commercially available non-stick-coated iron on a low heat setting (use only the settings for acrylic and nylon).

A smooth, flat surface is required for an ironing surface. If using a non-stick iron, be sure to stand the heated iron upright on a safe surface (e.g. ceramic hot plate) while working. A sign indicating the iron may still be hot after use is recommended for shared workspaces. Tacking irons usually come with metal stands.

Test a small area first to determine if the introduction of moisture and subsequent ironing will only worsen the wrinkled or "cockled" appearance of the page. Moisten the area of the paper to be ironed using a brush or water bottle with fine mist spray attachment. The "steam" function of a commercial iron does not permit sufficient control over the distribution of moisture.

Let the water soak in for a few seconds. Place a strip of spun polyester over the area and apply light but firm, even pressure, working the iron outward and away from the center of the area toward the margins. Be careful not to iron over folded portions of the page.

When working with pages that have been removed from heavily glued bindings, brush the page to be worked on and the page below with a soft bristle broom before ironing to avoid dragging the iron across a fragment of hardened glue and tearing the page.

Secure ironed pages between blotters and board (or plexiglass) for at least 24 hours. To be sure rag paper stays flat, place weights on the boards. Some rag content pages may respond only if the process is repeated after 24 hours, and many will still not look completely flattened. If the result of ironing is unsatisfactory, pages can be flattened out under glass by the camera operator.

Results of ironing vary depending on the type and condition of the paper. Discontinue ironing immediately if there is any obvious damage or worsening of the original folding or wrinkling. If a batch process humidification and flattening system is in operation, ironing should only need to be done on a selective basis for badly folded or creased pages or when only a few issues of a file require treatment.


Mending pages should only be performed as needed to allow the material to be handled during preparation and filming. When borrowing materials for filming, restrictions on procedures involved in the mending process must be discussed in advance and recorded in detail on loan forms. Humidification, flattening, and ironing should be done prior to any tape mending.

Wood pulp paper that will not be retained after filming may be mended with commercial transparent tape as needed to prevent pages from tearing when handled. (Note: some institutions have decided to avoid the use of commercial transparent tape in all instances, to prevent the possibility of accidental misuse on paper that is intended to be retained after filming.) A piece of firm, smooth binding board should be inserted below the area being repaired to prevent breakage of pages below when applying the tape. Waxed paper can be wrapped around and taped down onto the board to make it less likely to catch on torn edges of brittle pages. Apply tape firmly and smooth it out using your fingertips (a bone folder can be used if the paper is somewhat sturdy). It is easier to work with several small pieces of tape than to try to mend a long tear with a single long piece. If it is necessary to tape across a hole in the page, be sure to tape over the exposed adhesive on the reverse.
Mend rag paper with "archival" mending tape, using the same basic procedures described for commercial transparent tape mending. Always work with small pieces of tape and keep the amount used to hold the page together to a minimum.

Some pages may need the additional support of polyester folders to allow safe handling during the filming process (see below). Because the camera operator may need to reposition a page inside a polyester folder, be careful not to tape the page onto the folder.

The use of more sophisticated mending techniques and materials (e.g. mending with tissue papers and pastes) is not within the scope of this manual and would generally be considered a treatment action restricted to rare, unique newspaper issues of particular historic significance and/or artifactual value that have been properly relaxed, flattened, cleaned, and deacidified and will be provided with adequate long term storage by the holding location.

Polyester folders

Pages requiring additional structural support can be inserted into polyester folders (open on three sides) and interleaved with the remaining issues. Insert the pages so that inner margins are not tucked all the way into the folded side of the polyester. This is necessary to reduce the possibility of light reflectance off the slightly raised surface along the fold.

It is recommended that test shots be taken to check for possible light streaks resulting from surface glare whenever filming newspapers in polyester folders.

If sending material to an off-site camera or microform service agency, note that the folders can add considerable weight. If many pages have been inserted into folders, it may be necessary to divide the shipment into smaller units.

After filming, the pages can be removed and the folders wiped with an anti-static cloth prior to re-use. Slight surface scratching of the polyester that occurs during routine use will not affect the legibility of the filmed images.