It is a precious treasure trove charting centuries of public life across the length and breadth of Scotland.
Now the future of Scotland’s most important newspaper archive has been secured – thanks to the “overwhelming” success of a public appeal to safeguard “the day-to-day stories of ordinary Scots often not found anywhere else”.
The National Library of Scotland, which has a vast collection of nearly 1,000 titles dating as far back as 1940, warned last year that much of it was in danger of being lost forever due to its declining condition.
Experts said “urgent intervention” was needed to to prevent the permanent loss of around two thirds of its newspapers in its archive – the biggest in Scotland and one of the biggest in the UK.
The National Library is also working with local libraries across the country to help ensure that the future of its own collections can be secured.
A “Save Our Stories” campaign backed by crime writer Val McDermid was launched by the National Library in December, with the aim of stepping up painstaking conservation work on the most at-risk newspapers and for their fragile contents to be digitised.
More than £115,000 has been raised from hundreds of campaigners in the space of six months, with the appeal the most successful the National Library has run over the past six years. It was launched to help pay for crucial work to slow down the “degradation process” of newspapers held in crumbling volumes weighing up to 27kg.
The funding boost will secure the post of a full-time conservator for the next two years, as well as support a paid internship on the archive, which encompasses national titles, local papers and periodicals.
Some of the most recent conservation work has been carried out in reports in Scottish newspapers on the impact of the 1926 General Strike. The National Library of Scotland’s collection dates back to the publication of the country’s earliest newspapers in the mid-17th century.
It describes its archive as “a rare window into our collective past and are one of the few, if not only, chronicles of both the defining, major events in our history and the everyday moments”.
Head of development Lucy Clement said: “Newspapers are the ultimate ephemera – today’s news, tomorrow’s chip wrappers – and were never designed to last. And yet they hold some of the richest contemporaneous accounts of the history of Scotland, from both the halls of power and local communities.
"They are where you’ll find the stories of the labour movement, notorious criminals and political intrigues, as well as school sports days and amateur poetry competitions. Despite their incredibly fragile condition, our conservator can achieve amazing results so that these precious chronicles of our collective heritage can be saved and digitised for all to enjoy."
The National Library holds around 961 of the 1,750 newspaper titles which are believed to have been published in Scotland since 1641. Its archive includes a copy of the first edition of The Scotsman from January 25, 1817.
Other titles in the archive include the Edinburgh Evening News, The Press and Journal, The Herald, the Daily Record, The Sunday Post, the Ayrshire Post, the Perth Shopper, the Inverclyde Extra, Highland News, Stornoway Gazette, Orkney Today and the St Andrews Citizen.
Ms Clement said: “The appeal has enabled us to fund a two-year conservator post as well as a paid internship to conserve newspapers, so that they can be digitised. Two-thirds of donors to the appeal had never supported the National Library before, it has really captured the imaginations of folk beyond our regular supporters.
“The majority of our appeal donations usually come from people living in the Central Belt. With the emphasis on saving local newspapers from across the country, this appeal attracted supporters from all over Scotland, with half of all the donations coming from people outwith the Central Belt.”
The urgent work being carried out on the most at-risk newspapers involves removing each paper sheet from historic bindings, flattening and de-creasing them, mending tears and scratches, and reattaching loose fragments, so the pages can be photographed and their stories preserved.
Conservator Claire Hutchison said: “Newspapers are the most requested items in our collections. But they’re incredibly fragile and brittle. Everyone knows newsprint isn’t supposed to last more than a day. Older newspapers were made of rag paper, which was essentially cotton linen fibres. The paper was slightly thicker and was much better quality.
“With cheaper, more large-scale production that came from around 1900, newspapers were made from a wood pulp fibre that is inherently acidic. It contained an acidic component that deteriorates the paper. We’re fighting against an acidity that will never go away.
“The best approach to conserving the most fragile newspapers is to take an almost ‘first aid’ approach to try to save as much as we can. My conservation work is about providing stability, so that the pages can be digitised.
"In some cases, there is very little left of the binding and we’re trying to save as much of the newsprint as possible. Stabilising the pages saves the content and saves our history."
The National Library is still running the campaign, with the appeal page on its website stating: "Our newspaper archive is a rich reflection of Scottish history from the 1600s to the present day.
“Newspapers are used by anyone wishing to connect to Scotland's past. People use them to research their family history. Authors take inspiration from real-life people and events. They help schoolchildren discover first-hand accounts of life in Scotland from before they were born. And visitors can reminisce over photographs of their town or village changing over time.”
Ms Clement added: “We’ve been overwhelmed by people’s incredible support for our appeal to conserve our most fragile Scottish newspaper heritage, which has demonstrated just how much people value these historic documents.
“Conservation of these newspapers is underway and we’ll be putting the digitised copies online in the coming months.”