CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Harold Newman stands hunched over the pages. The curve in his upper spine looks like he’s been standing there for years, looking down at the newspaper lying on his table.
He leans down a little closer to read the headlines, get caught up on the old stories that once were news. The ink blackens his hands. He keeps flipping the pages.
The front page, obituaries, the sports section, opinions, every single page gets photographed by Newman. He lines up the front page, takes a step back and stomps on a black treadle. A high-pitched mechanical sound erupts as the camera captures a photo of the page. Newman steps forward, flips to the next page, and then takes a step back. Sometimes he’ll use a long metal bar to smooth out any bumps from the fold before “BANCHK!” stepping on the pedal again.
For most of his 40 years there, Newman has photographed every newspaper produced in the state to turn it into microfilm for the West Virginia State Archives collection.
He threads the film through the old microfilm machine. He makes sure the camera mounted above the table is the proper distance from the pages. And he stores the extra rolls of 35 mm film, something that’s getting harder to come by, in boxes under his desk, the place where he likes to eat peanut butter crackers and sip coffee for lunch.
If history preservation is a war, then Newman, with his gray hair and old Wrangler blue jeans, is on the front lines, working to save the state’s newspapers, to preserve them for decades, even centuries to come.
He’s the only person in the state still doing this kind of work. Other archive libraries, like the libraries at West Virginia University and Marshall University, purchase microfilm that’s already been produced from independent companies or individual newspapers. Even surrounding states’ archive libraries in Pennsylvania and Virginia, which used to do their own microfilming, buy the microfilm now.
“Hundreds of years from now, people will be using his stuff as the foundation for whatever they do with all the state’s newspapers,” Joe Geiger said of Newman.
Geiger is the director of West Virginia Archives and History. It’s his job to preserve the state’s history, to collect and store primary sources of information, like state record books, deeds and newspapers.
As technology has evolved, Geiger and his team have been forced to evolve their preservation techniques. Rather than storing old documents on film or keeping papers and photographs in temperature-controlled, dimly lit rooms, the archives team has had to answer questions like: “What will a PDF look like in 50 years?” ”Will we be using jpgs anymore?” and “How can we ensure that tomorrow’s software will be able to access today’s digital documents?”
It’s not something that can be done by guess work. Making the wrong assumption today could cause the team to lose a ton of digital information in the future.
“We’re historians. We’re used to dealing with old pieces of paper and photographs,” Geiger said. “Suddenly, we’re having to become digital forensic scientists.”
Previous photographers for the governor used to show up at the archives library and hand over boxes and boxes of negative images to be stored on a shelf. When Joe Manchin left the Governor’s Office, his team handed the state’s archivists a hard drive containing 420,000 digital images, Geiger said. “And we have to keep that forever.”
“It used to be we’d receive boxes of prints, stick them on a shelf and walk away. And if the climatic conditions are good, then everything’s cool,” Geiger said.
But you can’t throw some files onto a digital hard drive and then walk away. Data degradation can gradually occur within the media where digital information is stored. It’s like 21st-century paper rot.
In some areas, the archives team has embraced today’s digital world. Geiger’s staff is working in courthouses across the state to help digitize county records and deeds. They’ve been able to digitize birth, death and marriage certificates. They have giant digital scanners that they use to create images of old maps and such. And they’re constantly working to make primary sources available to people online.
“People have not thought through permanency of electronic records,” Geiger said.
So when it comes to newspaper preservation, the state’s archives team is in no hurry to change the way they preserve the state’s 57 weekly and 25 daily newspapers, a number that has slowly decreased because of similar struggles newspapers have faced making a profit in the digital age.
“I like to describe microfilm as being on the cutting edge of yesterday’s technology. Despite its antiquated format, it’s very preservation friendly,” said Errol Somay, director of Virginia’s Newspaper Project, the equivalent to West Virginia’s newspaper preservation program.
“If there’s a zombie apocalypse, you’ll still be able to look at microfilm with a candle and magnifying glass,” Somay added.
Adapted from technologies born in the 1800s, microfilm was first commercially used in the 1920s and began expanding to libraries for archival use in the ’30s and ’40s, according to a report by the University of California Los Angeles’ Southern Regional Library Facility.
The ability to compress the size of an image made microfilm an easy way for libraries to save storage space and still allow for the image to be reproduced.
“For us, it’s the cheapest, most efficient, safest way for this time,” Geiger said of microfilm.
With digital information, he added, five to 10 years from now you’ll have to buy a new hard drive, get a new server, upgrade your software. You have to run data checks and migrate data. In terms of cost and activity, maintaining digital information doesn’t end.
“Whereas I can take that microfilm and stick it on a shelf. And under ideal conditions, I can come back in a couple hundred years and it’s going to be there,” Geiger said.
“You stick a CD on a shelf or that external hard drive that Joe Manchin gave me, pull that off in 20 years and try to pull the data off of it. It might be very difficult.”
A brief survey among archive libraries in West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania shows that microfilm remains the go-to approach for preserving and archiving newspapers — which means that at 72, Newman is still at the top of his field in terms of newspaper preservation.
He isn’t much for technology. The battery on his cellphone ran out, and he can’t seem to get it to work. He said he needs to call Verizon and tell them to stop billing him. And he prefers playing cards with his mom over getting on the computer.
But he’s fiercely dedicated to the monotonous rhythm that is microfilming. When he runs out of a stack of papers, his coworker, Matt Dailey, said Newman isn’t afraid to come track him down. “We need something to shoot,” he’ll tell Dailey.
Dailey is in charge of receiving all of the newspapers that arrive in the mail. He goes through all of them, calls the newspaper if one is missing and keeps them in orderly piles along metal shelves on the third floor of the Culture and History center.
After Newman photographs the silver negative film, the images get sent off to a company for duplication. And when the duplicates return, Richard Fauss, the state’s audiovisual archivist, takes over.
His job is to examine the rolls, make sure the images were properly exposed and to let Newman know if a paper needs to be re-shot. Fauss then goes through every roll of film and cuts and splices them together so that when a roll is stored in their collection, all issues of The Herald-Dispatch or The Intelligencer will be stored together in chronological order.
“For this particular program, it still works,” Geiger said.
But there are a few factors that could halt the archive’s newspaper operation at any time.
If Newman’s microfilm camera breaks down, Geiger said, he’s not certain they’ll be able to find someone to fix it. It’s lived much longer than expected.
As film is slowly being swallowed up by digital, Geiger said there’s a chance they’ll reach a day when microfilm is no longer produced. He’s already seen the cost of film rise. And it’s likely microfilm will become an even scarcer commodity.
And finally, there’s Newman.
“It takes a special kind of person to do it,” Geiger said.
With every flip of the page and stomp on the treadle, Newman helps to preserve the state’s history, to preserve in-depth stories reporters have sweated over, preserve the obituaries of old friends, preserve the small community news that no one else bothers to report.
With every flip and stomp, he’s not thinking about the process or the newspapers, Newman said. He’s thinking about the nightclubs he used to go to as a young man, the pretty girls he used to dance with and the things he watched on TV last night.
“It’s kind of boring, but you make a game of it,” Newman said.
Newman’s not planning to retire any time soon. He’s in good health. But when he does retire, as long as there’s microfilm, he’s sure someone will take over his role.
“They’ll find somebody to do it,” he said. “Or they can get a robot.”
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.