Historic Election Newspapers, Scooped Up But Worthless?

On Nov. 5, the morning after Barack Obama's presidential victory, history unfolded across the nation's front pages -- and many Americans wanted to save a piece of it.

Across the country, newspaper circulation numbers saw a spike, a welcome surge for the struggling industry.

On an average day, The New York Times prints 220,000 copies for newsstand distribution alone, but it went well beyond that for the election. To meet demand, the Times scrambled to print an additional 70,000 copies and, later, an additional 150,000, said Catherine Mathis, senior vice-president of corporate communication.

"That day we ran over 400,000 copies," Mathis said. "We sold out."

In Washington, after 350,000 copies of the Washington Post sold out within just a few hours that morning, an additional 350,000 copies were printed and distributed to high-traffic stores, including 7-Eleven, CVS, Safeway and other retailers, where demand for single copies of the historic edition was high.

But how to put a price on the keepsakes?

Without proper care, those banner headlines could fade and crumble even before Barack Obama's presidency is over, preservation experts say.

According to Carrie Christoffersen, curator of collections at the Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism in Washington, D.C, newspapers are best stored in a dark room at 68 degrees Fahrenheit with 50 percent humidity. She says people often make the mistake of storing their commemorative newspapers in an attic or basement.

"Attics are often too hot and dry, and basements tend to be entirely too moist," says Christoffersen. "A better place is the back of your closet because there isn't a big temperature flux."

The main problem with preserving newspapers today stems from the relatively fragile nature of the materials used to print them at as low a cost as possible.

Before the mid-1800s, newspapers were made of cotton rag fibers, and many of those newspapers can be seen in good condition in museums and private collections today.

As it became cheaper to produce paper from wood pulp and less expensive chemicals for print, newspapers also became more degradable. The wood pulp makes them more brittle in hot and dry conditions while the acidity of the chemicals can eat away at the paper in moist environments.

The Library of Congress Web site states the best place to store newspapers is really a matter of good housekeeping. It suggests minimizing exposure of newspapers to dampness, heat, air pollutants, dust, insects and vermin, and putting them in places where they are protected from unexpected water damage.

Christoffersen says some people tend to store their newspapers in manila envelopes, which may make matters worse if the envelopes are also acidic. A better option is to preserve newspapers flat in acid-free cardboard boxes.

However, some people may want to put their historic newspapers on display for others to see, which can present more problems.

In such cases, Christoffersen says, "Light is the main culprit; it is cumulative and irreversible."

People who want to put their newspapers up for display should place them on a cotton matboard and frame them in UV-filtered acrylic glass, according to Christoffersen. She warns however that it's not just UV light that is harmful but all light, because "they are essentially beams of energy."

It is important to keep framed newspapers away from any direct source of light and away from heating or air-conditioning vents to prevent temperature fluctuations.

For people who want to preserve their historic editions and yet be able to display them, one compromise is to make a copy of the newspaper to put up for display while preserving the original in a safe place.

Christoffersen says those who are willing to go the extra mile and spend the money can look online for archival stores that offer special containers and methods for storing newspapers.

Some Nov. 5 editions have already sold online on eBay and Craigslist for hundreds of dollars. However, people hoping to make big bucks from auctioning off theirs in coming years should avoid investing too much, according to Philip Weiss with the Antiques Roadshow.

"They will have minimal value because everyone is going to save them," he says. "What makes collectibles valuable, in general, is scarcity and in this case people are hoarding them."

"If you could get them signed by Obama and Biden then it would be a lot more interesting."

Though older newspapers have survived longer, Christoffersen says technology may reveal better ways to preserve history.

"Five hundred years from now, who knows what innovations are going to be here," she says.

For the sake of people hoping to keep their claim on history, we can only hope such innovations come quickly.

As more and more newspapers stop their printing presses and become purely Web based, it will be curious to see how people gather historic memorabilia when the next big event comes along. For now, however, people can cling to their newspapers and their memories knowing they experienced one of the most pivotal moments of American history.