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1956-2006: Fifty Years of the Foreign Newspaper Microfilm Project

James Simon
Director of International Resources, Center for Research Libraries


CRL commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Foreign Newspaper Microfilm Project (FNMP) this year, one of the longest-running cooperative preservation programs in existence. Global newspapers are one of the main collection components of CRL and play a historically important role in CRL’s mission. This article summarizes the history and development of the newspaper program that led to the integration of FNMP into a vibrant and sustainable program for CRL and its members; and possible future activities.

Foundations of FNMP

Though officially founded in 1956, the program traces its lineage back to the beginning of cooperative filming projects. In 1938, microfilming gained a toehold in research institutions, as Harvard University, New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and others adopted this technology to capture and preserve materials in their collections.

Harvard began a program of filming foreign newspapers with seed funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harvard Corporation. Harvard selected 37 important titles to film and offered positive copies to other universities on a subscription basis. Its innovative funding strategy became the modus operandi for the future FNMP: in selling copies to other institutions, Harvard put the resulting revenue into a revolving fund to finance the ongoing microfilming operation.

It became clear that, while admirable, the Harvard program and other efforts were not expansive enough to sufficiently address the desires and needs of all research libraries, and that broader coverage of other parts of the world (and more intense coverage of certain regions) was still needed. In an appeal from Luther Evans, the Librarian of Congress, to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in 1946, the suggestion was made to create a nationally coordinated and cooperative plan for the microfilming of “extensive runs of library materials.” Following the recommendations of an ARL committee (chaired by Herman Fussler of the University of Chicago) and utilizing newly created union lists of international news holdings within the United States, FNMP was launched in 1956 to provide worldwide coverage of representative foreign titles.

CRL Administration of FNMP

CRL’s international newspaper collection was built initially from newspaper deposits made by member libraries as a space-saving measure on their part. In response to its members’ call for coverage of other world regions, CRL began subscribing to microform editions (and undertaking original filming at the University of Chicago’s photoduplication laboratory) of 57 foreign newspapers beginning in 1952.

It was evident that a much larger number of institutions than CRL’s 16 existing members could benefit from access to a shared pool of foreign newspapers. Institutions choosing not to subscribe to any particular title could have access through interlibrary loan, while titles with greater local demand could be purchased and retained in the traditional way. A program based on a larger number of institutions could extend world coverage and leverage cost savings. During the formation of the national plan, the ARL committee recommended that CRL (then the Midwest Inter-Library Center) be the repository and administrator for the project, due to its ability to “make fast nation-wide loans and handle other necessary arrangements of the project.” CRL agreed to act as agent to FNMP on a cost return basis. It was decided that any library could subscribe to the project regardless of ARL or CRL status.

An ARL standing committee was formed to help CRL administer the project, and on January 1, 1956 FNMP was inaugurated with 46 subscribing institutions and a first- year budget of $14,000. Initially, the committee selected up to 100 titles to be acquired and/or filmed,[1] and the project assumed the possession of film negatives and responsibility for filming the titles begun by Harvard University. FNMP also inherited or subsumed film from the Pan American Union (of Latin American newspapers) and CRL’s own newspaper pool. In three years, the number of titles had expanded to 146 titles, with 54 participating subscribers.

Growth of FNMP

By 1968, the number of foreign newspaper titles and separate microfilming projects had proliferated so rapidly that the ARL Foreign Newspaper Microfilm Committee began seeking an expanded national approach to the coordinated coverage of foreign newspapers. ARL proposed an undertaking to include 2,000 titles and to utilize resources of ARL, the Library of Congress, and other interested research institutions that had begun their own filming programs.[2] The Library of Congress took a lead role in this initiative, sponsoring a feasibility study and summary recommendations for action.[3] In 1972, the Library of Congress expanded its newspaper preservation program and established a full-time coordinator of foreign newspaper microfilming. It continued to publish its Newspapers in Microform union list (established in 1948), but split the title into two volumes: one for domestic titles and one for foreign. The Library also instituted a new publication titled Foreign Newspaper Report to provide a clearinghouse of information on newspaper microfilming from nonprofit and commercial publishers. This was a critical tool for sharing news on title changes, cessations, and “intents to film” for new titles.

At its peak in 1974, FNMP was subscribing to positive copies of 71 titles and filming 93 additional titles for its 80 subscribers, and it was able to spend a substantial amount of its surplus account balance on backfiles of important titles. However, due to a variety of factors, the program quickly declined in succeeding years. Rising costs of newsprint, microfilm, and personnel had led to a rapid increase in subscriber dues. With each increase in costs, participating members dropped out of the project. High costs of access to the backfiles under the devised introductory pricing structure made it difficult to attract new participants. Another problem was the increasing involvement in newspaper filming by commercial microfilm publishers, which would secure exclusive rights to titles previously filmed by FNMP. There was little assurance in the long-term commitment of commercial firms, and it was common for them to cease filming unprofitable titles, leaving substantial gaps in the microfilm of titles that were costly for FNMP to resume. As a whole, commitments in place by FNMP far outstretched the ability of the program to support itself.

The ARL Foreign Microfilm Committee had met infrequently in the several years leading to its discharge in 1980. ARL’s role in the project had been reduced to the point that it exercised only titular responsibility. In response to this, CRL submitted a proposal to ARL, requesting full strategic and operational responsibility for the program. In 1982, ownership of FNMP was officially transferred from ARL to CRL.

Integration into CRL

CRL responded to project losses by cutting back the number of titles being filmed (in some cases replacing these with positive produced elsewhere) and inviting CRL members to join the project without paying the sizable fee for access to project backfiles. It also prioritized filming schedules for the 51 remaining titles for filming, based on their profitability. Despite these efforts, the project continued to suffer problems of sustainability, and the maintenance of current filming schedules was often sacrificed in order to stay within the budget limits of the project.

In 1985/86, an internal task force of CRL performed a close examination of the project to develop a plan to make FNMP solvent financially and effective programmatically on a long-term basis. The task force examined FNMP’s purpose and the question of how it fit within CRL’s mission, policies and collections. The task force recommended the absorption of the project into CRL’s General Fund (merging FNMP activities with CRL’s PL-480 newspaper acquisition activities). With this change, CRL members would have access to all FNMP titles as part of their membership, rather than paying a separate FNMP fee.[4] Existing non-CRL FNMP subscribers would be allowed to continue participation through an annual fee of $1300 (allowing access to titles as well as discounted purchase rates). FNMP membership was otherwise frozen. Other modifications included:

  • Staff allocations would be changed to better reflect time spent on the project.
  • Storage charges for film would be absorbed by CRL.
  • Royalty fees would be recovered from subscribers.
  • Processing fees for film production would be increased.
  • Some title changes would be made, including cancellations and new additions.
  • The program would strive to film one year’s holdings per title, with excess funds going to eliminating the backlog of material as available.
  • Demand purchases would be temporarily restricted to currently subscribed titles only (as opposed to any title as previously offered).

The recommendation to absorb FNMP was approved at the CRL Council of Voting Members in April 1987. This absorption was a positive development in the history of FNMP. The stability of funding (plus the influx of extra funds from CRL as a result of underspent and reallocated funds each fiscal year) allowed the program to expand its acquisitions of foreign titles, and in 1986 and 1990, title additions expanded CRL’s offerings to its membership. Advisory roles for the newspaper program were assumed by CRL’s Collection Development Officer Advisory Panel (now, Collections and Services Advisory Panel).

In 1992, CRL released a two-volume compilation of foreign newspaper holdings. This publication was followed shortly by the debut of the foreign newspaper database on CRL’s Web site, providing comprehensive information on titles in print and film available from CRL. Grant awards from the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities assisted with bibliographic enhancements to the newspaper collection, resulting in virtually complete bibliographic control of all newspapers held by CRL (between 1994 and 1998, nearly 5,300 titles were cataloged or had records upgraded in CRL’s local catalog and in OCLC).

With the closing of University of Chicago’s photoduplication services in February 1994, FNMP was suspended for a period of about a year. A request for proposal and careful review of microfilming institutions resulted in the selection of Preservation Resources to assume the filming responsibilities for CRL. The negatives residing at the University of Chicago were shipped to Bethlehem, PA. The change in microfilming institutions resulted in the need to increase costs of microfilm reels.[5]

FNMP Today

Since 1995, preservation of current global newspapers continues to prosper under the program, albeit in modified form. Rather than a strong, centrally-coordinated effort to preserve and store multitude of foreign titles, FNMP has taken on a far more distributed nature. In the years between 1956 and today, microfilm has gained widespread acceptance as a reliable, long-term preservation mechanism (as well as a commercially viable distribution means). The number of institutions worldwide with archival-quality microfilming units has grown, and the need to preserve titles in hand has diminished. National Libraries in many countries have taken on much of the burden to preserve their own cultural heritage. Commercial organizations such as ProQuest/UMI, East View Information Services, Thomson Gale, and others have established markets in filming and distributing major foreign titles to libraries in North America. At the same time, other institutions in the United States (such as the Library of Congress, University of Florida, and New York Public Library) and overseas have picked up the preservation of materials from other countries that may be important to scholars but fall outside the realm of national capacity or commercial viability.

CRL still preserves a limited number of titles on a cost recovery basis. These include valuable resources from Latin America, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. In addition, a number of additional titles are preserved on an ongoing basis by the Area Studies Microform Projects.

Whenever possible, CRL prefers to subscribe to positive copies of titles being preserved elsewhere, to reduce the cost and redundancy of preservation efforts. CRL subscribes to more than 200 current foreign titles in microform. These materials are made widely accessible to CRL’s membership, and to non-members on a cost-recovery basis.

CRL has also turned its attention to the more pressing needs of retrospective conversion of news titles that were not included in early decisions of the ARL program. For instance, while the Library of Congress has engaged in systematic microform preservation of its current receipts since 1962, a variety of issues prior to this date remain in a fragile state. The majority of preservation funds at the Library go to reformatting of the incoming receipts only. CRL and the Library of Congress work closely together through the International Coalition on Newspapers (see related article) to address the retrospective preservation of critical newspaper titles.

FNMP Tomorrow

In 50 more years, where will the conservation of news resources stand? Will libraries continue to collect newspapers, maintain their print collections on a long-term basis, and make them available for preservation on a stable medium? A survey performed in 2003 of research libraries showed that just one in four responding institutions attempt to retain and make available indefinitely any of their international newspapers in hard copy. Such libraries are also likely to acquire some newspapers originally in microform; discard hard copy of titles subscribed to in print when microforms arrive; and discard titles altogether that are “regarded as primarily of value for research on current events” or titles known or “assumed to be” filmed and available through CRL or other consortia.

Informal surveys have shown that even this trend is reversing itself. With the advent of online newspapers and commercial organizations that aggregate news content, libraries are increasingly ceasing subscriptions to the titles formerly collected for current awareness, favoring Web access to electronic versions of the publication or other limited digital solutions offered by commercial aggregators. While fulfilling the needs of scholars who seek information on immediate events, these activities have the net effect of abandoning “collections of record” in favor of economical solutions that make no provision for persistent access to these resources.

Even if microform holds its (increasingly tenuous) status as the preferred medium for preservation reformatting, will institutions continue to collect these materials for long-term retention? Increasingly, digitization initiatives are opening access to hundreds of retrospective newspaper titles.

FNMP must adapt to the changes surrounding it. While CRL is pursuing mechanisms to convert its historic microfilm collections to electronic media (see related article), it must also plan the transition to digital capture, dissemination and, eventually, storage in its preservation of traditional source materials for international studies. This will undoubtedly include current foreign news titles.

To do this will require securing from publishers and rights holders the necessary digital rights for scholarly uses of international source materials. The guidelines recently specified by ICON identify a set of progressively liberal rights that libraries might acquire from newspaper publishers whose works they microfilm. In order to minimize copyright and other intellectual property barriers to the dissemination of scholarly source materials, CRL will, to the extent possible, acquire broad access rights in its reformatting and purchase agreements with publishers, archives, and other rights holders. The draft rights are available for comment at:

CRL will also need to provide for secure and reliable archiving of materials in digital formats. CRL is working on its capacity to implement archiving solutions suitable for the digital formats used to capture and disseminate source materials. Thus, FNMP ties directly into CRL’s strategic goals to provide its constituency persistent access to critical resources for advanced scholarly research and teaching.

  1. These were selected from the list entitled Current Foreign Newspapers Recommended for Cooperative Microfilming, prepared by area specialists at Library of Congress in 1954. Forty titles were considered “new” (i.e. unfilmed) while 60 were previously being filmed by Harvard, MILC, or other agencies.
  2. These institutions included Hoover Institution, Cornell University, University of Florida, New York Public Library, and University of California at Berkeley. Other nonprofit and commercial institutions also began filming foreign newspapers.
  3. Shaffer, Norman J. “Study to Develop Recommendations for a National Foreign Newspaper Microfilm Program.” 244 p. Presented at 30 June 1970 meeting of Foreign Newspaper Microfilm Committee, Association of Research Libraries. A summary was presented in U.S. Library of Congress Foreign Newspaper Report, (1973) 1:3–5.
  4. The task force recommended a modest increase in general membership fees to cover costs of filming titles and adding revenue to the program.
  5. This also necessitated changing the pricing structure from sales calculated by length of film to a single price per reel of film.