Some Suggestions For Collecting Current Newspapers

A newspaper collector information web page provided by

Phil Barber, Cambridge, Mass. 02139
Telephone (617) 492-4653

Today's Newspapers, Tomorrow's Rarities?

Today we live in what is celebrated as "The Information Age". Everywhere we turn there is new information coming at us, through radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines, and now the Internet. There has never been a time in human history when so much raw information has been so cheaply available to so many people. Print journalism has taken a back seat to the electronic media, and will likely continue to decline as the newest media deliver the world's news virtually instanteously.

It is extremely ironic, therefore, that our time may very well be a blank in future history, for the simple reason that the materials we record our lives on are so fragile. Unlike past cultures, we do not engrave our history on enduring blocks of stone or even on durable animal skins or good quality paper. Film and magnetic media have effective storage lives of less than a century, under properly controlled conditions, while manuscripts written on sheepskin in the tenth century and books printed in the 1400's have survived to the present with minimal environmental controls. The microfilm on which today's newspapers and magazines are being "preserved" actually has an average shelf life that is shorter than that of the old cotton rag paper of newspapers printed 130 years ago. Added to this problem in the field of newspapers is that no libraries today save hard copies of the actual papers. To do so would be wasteful of space, always at a premium, and of libraries' ever-dwindling funding. The vast majority of old newspapers which are still existence were once preserved by libraries in bound volumes; this source of supply will simply not exist for futures students and collectors of newspapers of our period

For these reasons I believe that newspapers from the late Twentieth Century and beyond will be quite rare in future collector markets. Whether this condition will translate into great value is another matter, however, which will be discussed below.

What Content is Worth Saving

A most collectible newspaper is one which reports a major event, for example, a Presidential assassination, in the city where it occurred, and on the same date it happened; or, if such a paper does not exist, the first newspaper to contain a report of the event. The power of such reporting is extraordinary, and the greatest appeal of the hobby. The news reports remain as dramatic as the day they first appeared, perhaps even more so, for the modern collector has the benefit of seeing how that event affected the future. Similarly a newspaper with a lengthy, detailed account or a striking graphic representation of an important news story on the front page will be far more valuable than one with a short account on the inside pages. The most attractive Page One layouts are considered the most suitable for framed display, which is a popular use of collectible newspapers today.

A Special Note About September 11, 2001
The foreign attack on the United States which occurred on September 11, 2001 is of the greatest historical importance, being an event without precedent in the national experience. For the first time, a handful of individuals -not even a hostile foreign government- carried out a murderous attack on civilians on American soil.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861 come to mind as the only other two similar occasions in our history. Those attacks on Old Glory also aroused the passions of Americans to fever pitch, with the nation hastening to mobilize its resources to severely punish its enemies both foreign and domestic. Today the rage that transfixed the United States after Sumter is all but forgotten, in the romanticizing of the Civil War, and Japan's military defeat in 1945 obscures the reality of the still ongoing economic war between the two ostensible "allies". These results could not have been foreseen on those two eventful days, just as the full ramifications of the 2001 attack will take years, perhaps decades, to unfold.

Those newspaper reports printed on the actual day of the attacks will be sought after for generations to come, just as are those from 1861 and 1941. The September 11 afternoon and evening Extra editions printed in the cities where the attacks took place, New York and Washington D.C., will be the most prized by collectors. Those with the most graphic frontpage layouts will doubtless be particularly esteemed. Newspapers from the following few days, as more details emerged, will also be collectible but as so many have been saved by speculators their commercial value will be minor for the foreseeable future.

See below for information on the care and preservation of these papers.

Just which events of our time will be remembered in the future is of course open to speculation. A glance into history suggests what past trends have been. For all the hoopla, the Gulf War for example, will probably be all but forgotten. Do you remember anything about the Spanish-American War, or even how many times just in this century that the government of the United States has sent invading armies into Mexico, Nicaragua, and elsewhere? The recent tragic deaths of Princess Diana and John Kennedy Jr. made gripping and powerful headlines, and will probably interest collectors until the present generation dies off, although in the long run I suspect their lives and untimely will be as forgotten as those of Princess Astrid of Monaco (killed in a car wreck in 1934) or Tad Lincoln (died in the White House of pneumonia at the age of seven in 1862) are today.

What Makes A Collectible Valuable?

Age has surprisingly little to do with the value of a collectible, since the price of just about everything is decided by supply and demand, with the latter being the far more significant factor. If, let us say, just four issues survive of a certain newspaper, but there is only one collector who wants one, then the demand is satisfied and remaining specimens are of low value in spite of their great rarity. If however a hundred people want the same item, then its value grows as these collectors seek to outbid one another for its possession. And if a thousand specialists simply must have one for their collection, then the piece can grow to be of substantial value. This helps to explain why, for example, I can offer a two hundred year old British newspaper for $10.00, while an original edition of the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline issue of the 1948 CHICAGO TRIBUNE has a value today of over $500.00. Because of the publicity surrounding that newspaper -we have all seen the famous AP photo of a beaming Harry Truman holding aloft a copy- the few that were not immediately recalled by the paper are very much in demand, while there are relatively few American collectors interested at present in the "atmosphere" content of the much older newspaper.

It is accurate to say that the rarity of newspapers is not generally reflected in their prices at the present. The hobby of newspaper collecting is a recent one, gaining in popularity chiefly in the past two decades. Because of the law of supply and demand, prices remain quite modest. The idea of collectibles as viable alternatives for everyone to the stock market, for example, is one whose validity has not generally been borne out by experience. The periodic booms and busts in the stamp and coin collecting field are good indicators that there are pitfalls as well as profits, no different or less risky a situation than in the stock market itself. A collection of high quality items, when gathered around a central unifying theme may be expected in the passage of time to become a valuable historical resource. It is reasonable to think that such a well-selected holding has a better than average chance of increasing in material value commensurate with its unique historical importance.

The market for newspapers and other ephemeral items is wholly collector-driven. Regardless of what price guides may say, the bottom line on the value of a collectible is the price agreed upon between a knowledgeable buyer and a well-informed seller. There can be no guarantees of a profitable resale of any collector's item, no more than you can be assured a profit in a stock market transaction; as in most of life's endeavors, there is no substitute for knowledge and prudence.

How to Preserve Modern Newspapers

Because of the extremely poor quality of paper upon which they are printed, today's newspapers pose unique challenges to both the historical hobbyist and the casual colector. This paper, called newsprint, is an organic, fibrous, woodpulp-based material that is highly interactive with its environment. It is well to note that the older papers that that survive today in our collections are still around because they were specially cared for. I believe that we present-day collectors are but temporary custodians, rather than permanent owners, of these historic items. It is apparent that we as responsible collectors of material that truly represents our history and heritage should take proper care of the material while it is in our possession, so it can be passed on to those who will come after us.

Briefly, the enemies of newsprint are heat, humidity, and sunlight. To maintain condition, a stable storage environment that is free of excess fluctuation in temperature and humidity is the basic consideration. Always choose a relatively dry (40% relative humidity is considered optimal), cool location in your home to store your collection. Any room suitable for habitation will generally be satisfactory for your paper collection. Keep your paper collectibles away from radiators or pipes that could one day be responsible for catastrophe by heat or water. Never leave old papers in the basement or attic, where change of temperature and humidity occur regularly and can cause accelerated deterioration. The second consideration is to provide an environment for your collection that limits contact with air and strong light. Long term direct exposure to atmospheric oxygen can cause that volatile element to react with chemicals naturally present in all paper, which can have unfortunate results. The high sulfur bleach used in modern newsprint readily combines with oxygen to produce sulfur dioxide, a corrosive compound that destroys woodpulp paper by dissolving the molecular bonding of the cellulose fibers of which it is composed. Light speeds up the process. Leave yesterday's newspaper outdoors in the afternoon sun for an example of this process.

Select only archival quality acid free containers for permanent storage. "Archival quality" means that the materials are chemically inert and will not leak any chemicals into the items stored in them. Mylar and polypropylene are the leading inert clear plastics used for archival purposes. They can be expensive but are well worth the peace of mind that comes with knowing your valuable papers are safely preserved in them. You can also make your own custom holders with a little ingenuity, some Mylar, and double-sided adhesive tape. Never use vinyl containers of any kind anywhere near your collection. Its chemical components are very unstable and will readily destroy anything made of paper that is kept in them for any length of time. Polyethylene bags are not recommended for permanent storage but are acceptable for display, shipping containers, or short term storage (five years or less).

If you frame your papers, as many hobbyists do, be sure to specify the use of acid free materials (often described by framers as archival or museum quality materials) and to include an ultraviolet filtering screen between them and bright light.

Today's newspapers are at risk of future deterioration due to the high acidic content of such paper. Deacidification, or neutralizing the dangerous acids present in many papers, is a remedy for this problem, and is suggested for the more valuable papers. Some solutions are available for use at home, which can be sprayed on the paper, or others that release deacidifying agents into the air may be used. Most of these products have a level of toxicity, and so should be used with great care, following the manufacturer's instructions to the letter.

Internet Preservation Resources
The World Wide Web is a gold mine of helpful information of all kinds for the collector, archivist, and historical hobbyist. Here are a few suggested links for further information on the care and preservation of collectibles of all kinds.

Conservation Information
The Northeast Document Conservation Center ( This excellent site includes an online version of the Center's very helpful book Preservation of Library and Archival Materials: A Manual.
Conservation OnLine ( A project of the Preservation Department of Stanford University Libraries, this site abounds in useful information and has a wide variety of links for further online resources.
UNESCO's "Memory of the World" project ( This very ambition project aims to "promote the preservation of the documentary heritage of mankind" and to this end discusses many way of preserving paper, photos, and modern archival materials. This site contains Tim Padgfield's An Introduction to the Physics of the Museum Environment, a useful discussion on relative humidity and its effect on collections, with techniques for environmental monitoring.
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections ( Featured here are a number of pamphlets, including several on insect pests and identification of archival quality plastics.

Commercial Websites
University Products. This site sells the finest archival quality supplies to house your collection, and books on how to care for your valued collectibles.
Action Plastic Sales. Here you will find a wide selection of economically priced polyethylene slips (useful for shipping and short term storage) and other useful supplies.
L-W Book Sales & Publishing. Excellent retail source for reference books and price guides in many areas of antiques and collectibles.

You can also visit my information pages on collecting, collector terminology, how to read my general catalog descriptions, and more by selecting this link. For further reading I suggest Rickard's Collecting Printed Ephemera [Abbeville Press, 1988].

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