Conserving and digitizing the New York Weekly dime novels
This blogpost was co-authored by Chris Hacker, Astrid Smith, Sarah Newton, Rebecca Wingfield, and Dinah Handel
Over the last year, the Digital Production Group (DPG), along with the Conservation and Metadata units, and led by American and British Literature Curator Rebecca Wingfield, have been engaged in a multi-institution project to increase access to dime novels and story papers, digitizing over 700 dime novels from the library’s holdings. You can read more about the project, an NEH-funded partnership between Villanova University and Northern Illinois University, in this blogpost. As of February 2022, digitization work is complete, and the project team is wrapping up the final aspects of the project, including quality assurance, metadata, and eventual release to Searchworks.
Although the project included numerous titles (Log Cabin Library, Brave and Bold, and Diamond Dick, Jr. to name a few), the title with the largest share digitized was the broadside story paper the New York Weekly. The New York Weekly, like all dime novels and story papers, was mass-produced and printed on thin paper, meaning that the issues had degraded and were fragile, and required conservation treatment and additional preparation and handling for digitization. Adding to the complexity was the size of The New York Weekly, measuring 42" x 28" when unfolded. In consultation with the Conservation department, the Digital Production Group determined the safest and most efficient method of digitizing the issues, while minimizing the handling and movement of the material. In the following sections, Chris Hacker, Astrid Smith, and Sarah Newton will describe the conservation assessment, repairs, and digitization workflow for these rare and fragile Dime Novels.
Over 425 issues of the New York Weekly were assessed in the Conservation Lab to determine whether they could be imaged safely. For this title, the broadsheet format (an 8 page spread printed on a single sheet, designed to be folded and cut into pages) provided handling and space challenges during assessment and treatment. While some issues were cut at the head into 2 sheets, many were still folded as a single large uncut sheet of about 42” x 28”.
Of the cut issues, some were sewn at the spine, some not. The sewing, when present, was removed so that the pages could be separated and would open flat.
48 issues were identified for conservation treatment, which focused on flattening folds that prevented the pages from being opened or from lying flat, opening creases that obscured text, and stabilizing long tears that might shift during scanning. Smaller tears were not mended, and neither were tears that did not extend into the text area. We also made the decision not to remove any of the large amounts of pressure sensitive tape that had previously been used on many of the issues.
Dampening the brittle paper to unfold the creases was done using localized humidification. Placing damp blotters on the crumpled areas with a gore-tex barrier provided enough moisture for many smaller folds to be opened up and dried under weight. Sheets with multiple folds running in different directions required more intensive overall humidification to allow the entire sheet to be flattened while drying under felts and weight. Tears were stabilized with small pieces of very thin Japanese paper and a wheat starch paste or methyl cellulose adhesive. The paper used for repair was thin enough that if it was necessary to cover text the print would remain visible.
Although the 48 issues of New York Weekly account for less than one quarter of the over 200 individual items that received conservation treatment for this project, due the large format and the complexity of some of the treatments those 48 issues took almost half of the total treatment time - over 25 hours. New York Weekly was the only title with any treatment on a single item that took more than one hour.
The Digital Production Group and the Conservation department determined together that we could safely digitize the fragile New York Weekly broadside issues on our WideTek large-format sheet-feed scanner. DPG primarily uses the WideTek scanner for scanning maps, but it has many uses for relatively high-speed, high-quality scanning of any large items such as posters and newspapers.
The scanner is gentle, but because of the mechanical nature of it, extra precautions are taken with anything very fragile or where ink transfer is possible, like the New York Weekly issues - such objects are enclosed in a protective mylar folder before being fed through the scanner. Custom made by our conservation team, these folders consist of a gray backing sheet and a transparent mylar cover adhered along a single edge.
Handling techniques that are safe for the objects as well as being ergonomically comfortable - and repeatable many, many times - are one of the primary concerns in any digitization project, and the New York Weekly broadsheets posed a particular challenge. They are stored folded, each issue inside its own folder within heavy archival boxes. To scan them, they needed to be carefully removed, unfolded, put inside the mylar folder - and then flipped over to scan the other side, re-folded, and returned to their folders and box. No small feat for such fragile objects!
Rare book and special collections digitization specialist Astrid Smith proposed that we could use a “sandwich-flip” technique, where we would place large sheets of stiff backing paper on either side of the unfolded broadsides, which when held together hold the broadside securely in place in order to safely flip this sturdier stack as a unit. The top sheet is removed for imaging, and the bottom sheet stays in place as additional transport support within the mylar folder. She tested this method a few times, and after it proved successful, she and Kat Dumitruk documented the process as a training reference for staff assigned to the project to view.
The scanner does not place significant flattening pressure on the object being scanned, and additional attention was paid to safely flatten minor wrinkles in the broadsheets beforehand both to reduce visible shadows and crinkling in the digital images and to eliminate the possibility of the broadsheets shifting within the mylar folder during scanning. This was done by lightly tapping from the center outwards, taking great care not to smudge any ink or put too much pressure on folds.
Now we needed to decide how to crop the images for optimal digital display. The 4-up printing process, where eight pages are printed onto one large broadsheet (ordered so that it reads properly only when folded and cut along the top), created a unique scenario. In the full sheets, the pages are out of order, and two are upside down.
We used an automated Photoshop script to split and rotate the 4-up images into separate individual page images before running them through our usual post-processing workflow.
We wanted to show the digital object in a way that made the text easily readable while preserving an impression of the object’s unique format, so the images were cropped to include a small strip of the facing page, thus providing a visual indication of how the object might have been folded and unfolded (perhaps many times) by the eager Victorian reader wanting to navigate to the next part of their story. The comparative ease of a finger on a trackpad or a mouse gliding across a screen makes for an almost humorous contrast.
The entirety of the digitized dime novels aren’t quite ready to make their SearchWorks debut, but we hope you enjoy this celebration of our work and preview of what’s to come. In addition to our co-authors, we also want to thank the many staff from the Digital Production Group who worked on this project: Kat Dimitruk, Kylee Diedrich, Justine Xi, Abigail Watson, Tati Scutelnic, Jen Diaz, John Pearson, Keenan Eng, Peter Crandall, and Alex Nguyen.