When I first took over as Local Studies Librarian, one of the aspects of the job that interested me least was looking after the newspaper collection. At the time this amounted to about 500 books of newspapers in the onsite Library store, with about another 70 books at an offsite store. And lots and lots of microfilm. The print copies ran from the 1740s to (almost) the present day, and some of them were (and are) in a parlous state. Little did I know how much of my time and curiosity would be taken up by newspapers.
In 2007 our local newspaper, the Bath Chronicle, donated their archive of photos, clippings and bound newspapers to the Library. They were moving office and wouldn’t have space for their collection. I think it was probably at this point that I started to really appreciate what newspapers were and what they could do. But first we had to sort them out… all 1500 books of them.There had been some attempt to sort them into an approximate order a few years before the Library got hold of them, but we had to assess what was there and what condition it was in. It took a while and a lot of help from my colleagues, but we finally laid them out across the floor of the marketing office in the old newspaper building. Then, of course, we had to stack them all up in a different storage room. Since then, they’ve been moved again to another store, and will probably move again. After all, these papers take up a lot of space. The largest one is about 80cm tall, though they average 50-70cm depending on title and date. The Victorian ones also weigh quite a lot.
The earliest papers – the first Bath Journal was published in 1744, and the first Bath Chronicle in October 1760, though there were other short-lived titles around as well – were slim on local news. They mainly printed a digest of the London news, lots of adverts and sometimes even some poetry or a story. But even these slim pickings can provide a valuable insight into life in the city at the time of their publication. The papers were printed as four pages on a single, folded sheet of paper – stamp duty was paid on each sheet of paper so it was kept short to reduce this overhead. They start with three columns, but build to five columns by the nineteenth century, jamming in as much information as possible by shrinking the font size over time. Stories of lost cats, stolen shirts or the sad demise of a neighbour who fell off his horse on the way home one night, were kept short through necessity. The visitor list – a fixture in the Bath Chronicle until the 1950s (only interrupted by World War II) – was an important piece of information for tourists and residents alike (and present-day researchers), so was given a prominent place at the head of the local news.
It now acts as a marker for the Bath news: visitors; a short section of one-line hatch, matches and dispatches; perhaps some news of a fire or robbery to spice up the column, but more likely the report of a concert or fireworks display to celebrate a Royal birthday; then a summary of bankruptcies, cargo ships arriving at Bristol and other business news.
In the nineteenth century the publication of newspapers boomed. Stamp duty was removed in mid-century, the costs of paper production dropped as mechanisation was introduced, and the printing processes were streamlined and speeded up. At the start of the century the three main Bath papers were short and weekly only. By the start of the twentieth century the papers were broadsheets of about 26 pages, printed in small fonts, required a table to read them comfortably, and came in weekly versions as well as multiple daily editions (two, sometimes three editions per day). It is hard to imagine the need for so much newsprint now, but we live in an age when news is available on demand on radio, television, computers, phones and the newsprint business is dying.
Whilst these papers are a bit of a nightmare to handle, they provide intriguing insights into daily lives, and perspectives on what are, to us, events from history books. The contemporary reports remind us that we see these events with biased hindsight. Adverts show us familiar names of businesses that were operating into the late twentieth century, such as Fortts, Evans and Owen, Jolly’s, Lloyd’s Bank etc. but we don’t yet have images beyond the occasional engraving used for adverts or cartoon. That was the next innovation.
The first photos started appearing in the Chronicle in 1912. Just a few, often including a view of Bath or the local countryside, perhaps from a rooftop or other unfamiliar angle. In the following decade photos became very important to the paper and the propaganda of WWI. The roll call of the brave young men off fighting the war filled a page in each weekly edition alongside other, heavily censored, news. Medal awards were announced, and a few missing-in-action notices. Weddings, fetes, fairs and gala dinners were promoted to show that normal life continued alongside the real horrors of war that remained unreported as they were happening. The local papers were an important part of the war effort in both world wars. The oldest title, the Bath Journal, folded in 1916 and was taken over by its rival, the Bath Chronicle. By World War II the Bath Chronicle – in a daily and a weekly format – was the last remaining title in the city of Bath. It came under pressure to censor their news, and the rationing of paper and ink supplies forced the papers into tabloid format by 1942.
The Bath Chronicle is still published. The weekly edition was obliged to close during the long journalist’s strike from March to August 1980, leaving only the daily edition. The increasing pressures on printed newspapers by modern media forced the daily edition to drop to weekly only in September 2007. Thus we come full circle – the weekly that became daily is once more weekly. How long it may last in print is unknown as more people search out their news in an electronic format. What this means for keeping newspapers as an important social and cultural historical source is also unknown. We still microfilm the newspaper, but we no longer keep the hard copies and bind them – we can’t afford to and we wouldn’t have the space to store them if we did. The British Library has just built a new storage facility for its newspaper and periodical collection, and they still retain printed newspapers from around the UK, but they are now developing their policies regarding the retention of digital news: online versions of newspapers, Twitter feeds, television news reports. The policy is in its infancy, and the technology is advancing faster than we can keep up with ways to store it for posterity. It would be a shame if we didn’t manage to retain newspapers, their serious reporting as well as their quirky local news and adverts. They are an important source of social history and commentary.