One Thursday morning, I found a post in the “free” section of Craigslist for a sizable collection of historic New Orleans newspapers.
Months earlier, the very same collection had been for sale but now it was being given away, so I sent off an email indicating my interest. Not 30 minutes later, I received a phone call from an unknown local number.
The woman on the other end of the line made it clear the situation was time-sensitive and asked if I could meet her that afternoon. I packed my bag and set out for a neighborhood in the shadows of the dilapidated Dixie Beer brewery. I cruised five miles in the crushing heat, and my front bike tire went flat four blocks from the destination. When I finally arrived, the woman was waiting. She led me into an unassuming storefront containing thousands of boxes stacked in three long rows that filled the room from floor to ceiling, each row shrinkwrapped to prevent collapse.
"So, do you think you could have this all out by Sunday?"
Her request overwhelmed me, but I knew I was staring at a treasure, and said I had to make a call, “Can I let you know in an hour?" It just so happened that my studio space was situated above a warehouse, so I dialed my landlord’s number, and persuaded him to let me use the space.
The next day, my landlord and I rented a 17-foot box truck, and found a few friends to take part in a mock fire-bucket brigade. We were topping-off each truckload with as many boxes as could fit. Each parcel contained 15 airtight plastic tubes, an antique New Orleans newspaper sealed in each.
It took us six trips in four days to move 50 years of history five miles across town.
Back at the warehouse, I eagerly began unpacking box after box, moving some of them up the spiral staircase into my studio. As the cardboard was broken down, the tubes piled up. There was no order to the collection whatsoever, but I noticed some thematic patterns and began a crude inventory. I stacked Society sections on the futon, Comics in the bedroom, Sunday Magazines next to the drafting table, sepia-toned Rotogravure photo supplements in the living room, Theatre and Cinema sections near the desk, Literature by the letterpress. Out of necessity, I constructed a wall of tubes using the less exotic looking papers. But there was something spectacular about each one—a gem of information lost in time. It wasn't until several thousand tubes were sorted and stacked that the full flavor of the collection was revealed.
There were papers from the The Daily-Picayune dating back to 1888, some from the The Times-Democrat, and many more from the first decade and a half of The Times-Picayune, which was created by the merger of the Daily-Picayune and the Times-Democrat in 1914. Reading a book on the history of the Picayune, I learned of Eliza Jane Nicholson, the first female proprietor of a major American newspaper. Much of the collection, it turned out, contains her innovative publishing legacy. So I named the archive after her: The Eliza Jane Nicholson Digital Newspaper Archive.
Although there are many books about historical New Orleans, there is a dearth of material about the technological evolution of these newspapers.
Early chromolithography drew me in, so first I delved into the four-color lady's fashion sections and two-color comics. I researched names like Harold Knerr, Grace Drayton, Gene Byrnes, Bud Fisher, Sidney Smith, and countless other comic legends. I discovered "Red Magic" papers from the 1920s, edited by Harry Houdini himself.
I'd fall asleep each night with hundreds of newsprint scrolls, tubes stacked in honeycomb patterns against my bedroom walls. After several months, I noticed the 10-foot-high, 15-foot-wide wall of tubes began to slope more each day. I always figured I had time to fix it, but one night it came crashing down, barricading my bedroom door. The train that travels by the studio and shakes the building was too much for the trapeze act.
It took me half a day to bail it out. I had tubed myself into a corner.
The next question was: what to do with all this precious archival material? I made calls to those I thought could offer advice. I asked archivists, librarians, professors, deans, scholars, appraisers, curators, lawyers, editors, and artists—anybody I thought could help me put value on the archive.
An appraiser told me what I had rescued was worthless. A major auction house offered to advertise and sell it on my behalf. A museum curator told me outright, “newspapers are not art.” The Times-Picayune, struggling to stay afloat, showed complete disinterest. Collectors hounded me for the Mardi-Gras papers. Professors and scholars wanted the pieces that were special to them. Magazine and book editors were interested in republishing excerpts. Archivists explained how the undertaking was daunting. Librarians were always there to help. Artists, mostly, wanted to explore it. Many shared my vision of creating a new digital repository.