Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The first rough draft of history

April 21-27 marks Preservation Week, and May 1st is "MayDay," an annual event observed each year to raise awareness of the importance of taking simple steps to protect historical records. So the timing is perfect to bring awareness to the public about the work of the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) Preservation Services Section.

The Preservation Services Section of the Tennessee State Library and Archives provides preservation and increased access for the collections housed at TSLA and other records across the state. These services include microfilming, digital imaging, document restoration and preservation, and photographic duplication. The extensive microfilming program preserves state records -- both traditional and digital -- as well as local county records, newspapers, and manuscript collections.

Newspapers, in particular, provide the public with a window into what life was like in communities throughout the State of Tennessee. They are an important part of the collections held at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and it is the duty of the Preservation Services Section to microfilm newspapers from across the state, preserving this critical information for future generations.

One of the earliest newspapers on microfilm at TSLA,
The Knoxville Gazette, published on November 5, 1791.
Preservation Services has microfilmed newspapers for almost 60 years. As early as the 1930s and 1940s the State Library began collecting the early examples of Tennessee newspapers. With the help of the Tennessee Historical Society and others, Mrs. John Trotwood Moore -- State Librarian and Archivist from 1929 to 1949 -- established an active collecting policy to preserve these historic newspapers. One of the earliest newspapers collected from these efforts was an edition of the Knoxville Gazette published on November 5, 1791.

By the 1950s, TSLA began to look for ways to collect even more newspapers from our state's past and preserve them for posterity. On September 4, 1957, "Operation Newspapers" was launched, and continued through the late 1960s, acquiring newspapers from anyone willing to donate or loan newspapers published prior to 1920.
The project, considered ground breaking at the time, was promoted by then State Librarian Dr. Dan Robison and operated by Horace Blades and James E. Pike. It unearthed many interesting examples such as the Pioneer of Jackson, Tennessee for 1822, Mrs. Grundy of Tracy City, and Pearl’s Gazette and Lottery Exchange Register just to name a few of the unusual titles. Mr. Blades and Mr. Pike even went to Houma, Louisiana to film a large collection of the Winchester Home Journal.

Thanks to these early efforts, TSLA maintains the largest collection of historic (and new) Tennessee newspapers in the country, providing the public with a rich chronicle of the history and current events of the Volunteer State.

In 1957 the call went out for “old newspapers” and thousands of pages in every condition came into TSLA. Almost all were salvaged, stabilized and microfilmed. By 1966 the project proudly preserved over 6,000,000 pages, 1200 rolls of microfilm and over 1000 different Tennessee titles.

Today TSLA's Preservation Services Section continues microfilming of current newspapers for preservation and access, preserving 200 Tennessee community newspapers from across the state.

Additionally, the Preservation Services Section microfilms any old newspapers that are sent to us. Just recently two unique titles arrived for filming that previously did not exist in the film collection -- the Quid-Nunc of Grand Junction and the Mason Call of Mason, Tennessee. 
Microfilming is a process that demands attention to detail. Individual newspapers are meticulously checked, collated and flattened, to make them ready for microfilming. Microfilming then takes place, with the camera operator taking a picture of each page, and the film is processed, reviewed, and duplicated.

Traditional 35mm microfilm camera dedicated to newspaper preservation microfilming.

Many public libraries hold their community papers until the film is ready, and then purchase this film from TSLA for use by their own present and future patrons. Were it not for the diligent efforts of public libraries throughout the state to save these papers from certain destruction, we would not have such a vast record of community activity and important events in our state's history.
Digitization is also an important part of how we preserve newspapers at TSLA. We are actively participating in several digitization projects, including a collaborative effort with the University of Tennessee and the Library of Congress. Maintained by the Library of Congress, the "Chronicling America" Digital Newspaper Project provides access to information about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages. It is a long-term effort to develop an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages. So far, more than 200 rolls of microfilm containing 98,765 pages of Tennessee newspapers have been posted to the Chronicling America website as a sample of the whole collection. To see more about Tennessee's historic newspapers see:

The UT project also maintains a blog of interesting items found in the Tennessee papers at:

For more newspaper titles, visit TSLA’s website and its online catalog and search for newspapers by community name:

The Preservation Services Section of TSLA never stops in its quest to preserve the newspapers of Tennessee's communities. Newspapers are, after all, the "first rough draft of history." They provide valuable information about our shared past, and are an important piece of the puzzle of preservation.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.


  1. Okay, I'm curious...why is May 1 chosen?

  2. Thank you for your question about the origins of “MayDay.” Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the archival community started looking for more ways to heighten awareness of preservation efforts. In 2006, this effort gained momentum, and May 1st was the date set aside as the “MayDay” preservation program. “MayDay” is actually a play on words for the “May Day” radio distress call for help during a disaster. In addition to the links provided above, you can learn more about “MayDay” by visiting the Heritage Emergency National Task Force website, “Lessons Applied: Katrina and Cultural Heritage.” You can also find out more by visiting the Society of American Archivists “MayDay” website.