The more I researched how to care for and manage such a collection, the more pieces the puzzle had.
At the advice of a former librarian friend, I ordered Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper and read it over a weekend. Author Nicholson Baker describes the movement by libraries to discard volumes of surplus text, a trend he decries as anti-intellectual. Providing digital access to resources, he argues, should not necessitate the removal of physical archives. Baker specifically mentions bidding on the Picayune collection. The entire newspaper repository had apparently survived a Nazi bombing, only to later be deaccessioned a year later by the British Library. (I sent a letter to his publisher explaining how I secured part of the archive, but have yet to hear back.)
By chance, the copy of his book I acquired online had once been owned by a public library in Texas—a book on deaccessioning itself auspiciously deaccessioned.
* * *
As a printmaker, my work is to reintroduce images and stories from the past into people's everyday lives. My best guess is that this obsession comes from watching my dad, a salvager and tinkerer who rebuilt antique lamps in his workshop and restored them to their full dignity. I can't exactly restore old newspapers in the same way, but I can make products that evoke the ethos. Most of the archival collection is in the public domain, which means it's possible to revive old images and text in prints, postcards, books, even T-shirts and beer coasters. The possibilities seem endless.
Of course, setting type is not about novelty; it's about the tactile accessibility of print history, about giving the past a material now. There are other, more immersive ways this kind of history ought to be shared. The city’s tricentennial is approaching. What better revive the grandeur of old New Orleans than by linking antique presses and the content of Victorian-era newspapers to today's state-of-the-art technologies?
Over 40 years ago The Times-Picayune, like many other newspapers, dispensed of their physical collections and condensed them to microfilm. This resulted in a low-quality, difficult-to-search archive. The gray scale of photography disappeared entirely and color was completely lost. But now we can build a new digital archive that is fresh and relevant, stitched into the city's geography and culture, ultimately focused on promoting understanding of and access to its textual mythos. I am developing business plans, writing grants, and building a website to promote the project. More importantly, I am trying to find a home for this archive, a place where I can unpack it and sort it while maintaining my identity as a printmaker whose chief task is to triage the technology of a world gone digital.
I’ve recruited archivists, artists, curators, graphic designers, grant writers, media history experts, and am building a team of volunteers. We're designing prototypes that re-imagine this material for the modern market. Preserving an archive like this is not enough. Today's technologies and analytical tools will allow us to revisit these newspapers and extract more meaning from them than was ever possible when they were first printed.
At a grant writing seminar this past year, a pathologist explained how, by creating a highly-searchable database of content from 50 years of newspapers, we might develop complex formulas to predict the future. That may be a stretch, but an appealing one.
"Anybody can always just stop by, pull a tube out of the wall, ask it a question, and find something pertinent to their struggle," I told him.
Since then, I've been referring to the archive as an oracle.