The value of old newspapers

This week Doug asked me about the value of historic newspaper. Many people save them, of course: the newspapers that first gave the news that President Kennedy was shot, or that astronauts had walked on the moon, or that a war had begun or ended. I was sorry to have to tell Doug that the answer to his question is “absolutely no value at all.” That statement is more than a personal opinion; it is the word of a trained and certified archivist.

Why do old newspapers have no value? Let me count the ways:

  1. They printed so many of them. Most have disappeared into garbage cans, recycling bins, bird cages, and the like, but many copies of old newspapers remain stored in closets, attics, and basements. At least a bicentennial quarter is still worth twenty-five cents, but those quarters have not increased in value because so many were made. Even in the year 2076, a bicentennial quarter will probably be worth no more than twenty-five cents, because so many were minted.
  2. But newspapers diminish in value. If you tried to increase the value of a newspaper by putting it under glass and putting a frame around it, someone else might buy it from you, but probably only for the value of the frame. The buyer would most likely throw the newspaper away.
  3. For obvious reasons, newspapers are printed on low value paper. Over time, the acidic quality of the paper reacts to air, sunlight, temperature changes, humidity changes, and other factors. This is why newspapers become yellow and brittle over time. Their deterioration can be slowed by keeping them safe from sunlight and in a stable environment (unchanging temperature and humidity). Most of our attics and closets and basements are nowhere close to stable. In fact, it is very expensive to build a room that remains constant in temperature and humidity.
  4. As they deteriorate, newspapers release their acid onto adjoining surfaces, causing them also to darken and become more brittle. They can damage other papers which have more value, such as handwritten notes and letters. As an archivist, I always separate newspapers and newspaper clippings from other collections of paper. My first inclination is to discard the newspaper or clipping. I might, however, keep a set of clippings as an indication of the personal interest of the person who took the trouble to cut articles from newspapers. Especially if the clippings have underlines or handwritten notes, they are worth saving—not for financial value, but only for historic information about a person.
  5. Newspaper publishers and libraries keep copies of newspapers. To save storage space, they often preserve the images digitally or—more old-school—on microfilm. Some companies even make copies of old newspapers available through the internet. Because these images are readily available, no value remains in the original copy of a newspaper.

What should you do, then, with historic newspapers that you or your parents or grandparents have saved? My advice is to discard them. Use the storage space for more valuable items. Reduce your risk of fire, of insect infestation, and of damaging other papers you are saving. Get rid of excess baggage before you die, so that your family doesn’t have to wonder what to do with all your old trash.

If the newspaper has some sentimental value for you—maybe it is the front page from the day you were born—then take a picture of the paper before you discard it. Save that picture at least three different places: on your camera, on a desktop or laptop computer, on a portable memory, as an email attachment, or on the Cloud. Always save a digital image or document more than one place. From time to time you may wish to check your images; if one copy has been lost or damaged, you can replace it from one of your other copies.

But get rid of your discolored, crumbling, smelly, bulky newspapers. You will be glad you did. J.