Ben Evers is a member of the University Librarian's Advisory Board. We met with him recently at his office in Mission Valley to discuss his interest in collecting newspapers.
Q: How many newspapers are in your collection?
A: I don't collect; I accumulate. To say I collect newspapers would suggest some kind of order, and there is no order to my method. I have around 2,000 newspapers that span the years from 1602 up to President Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
Q: How did you begin "accumulating"?
A: Between 1965 and 2000 I worked as a freelance photographer, and I traveled a great deal. When I'd get into various towns I'd stop by bookstores. They always had old newspapers that they didn't know what to do with because people didn't put a lot of value on them. I'd find myself picking them up and taking them back to my hotel room to read in the evenings instead of watching television.
But my interest in the printed word goes back much farther than that. My brother and I were latchkey children because our parents both worked, and between our house and school was a Carnegie-endowed branch of the Dayton (Ohio) library. The librarians were very kind and let me read anything I wanted. It gave me an eclectic taste as far as subject matter went. As a middle-school student after my family moved to Orange County, Calif., I got a job setting type and became a linotype operator. I learned to treasure the work that goes into making a printed piece. There's a magic quality to the feel of impressed type, the way the type has hit the paper.
Q: Do you look for papers of historical significance?
A: I typically don't look for the big-event newspapers. The thing I really like is that you can tell so much about day-to-day life by reading any given edition of the newspaper. The people in these stories were contemporary eyewitnesses to things we consider history. You could write a book or a movie from any one of these, like the story printed on Dec. 7, 1808, in the North American and Mercantile Daily Advertiser asking for information about the fate of a disappeared schooner.
Q: Do you have a prized possession among the papers?
A: No, but one that strikes me with awe is a publication from the French Revolution that lists the names of people executed the previous week, where they died, and for what reason.
I've also got a London coffeehouse newspaper from 1683, a Boston paper from 1795 with an article by George Washington, the Harper's Weekly that commemorates Abraham Lincoln's death with drawings by Thomas Nast and a New York Times from the following month that chronicles the country's path toward Reconstruction. I have a set of New York Tribunes that covers the trial of Henry Wirtz, the only person executed for war crimes after the Civil War. One fascinating piece is an Oriental Sporting Magazine printed in Calcutta in 1870, before photographs could be mechanically produced, that has one pasted in.
Q: Do you collect papers from all over the world?
A: I have some British and French publications, but I focus on those printed in the United States, mostly on the East Coast before settlers came west. I think the foundation of our strength as a country is the free press. It's not always unbiased, but the information is there so we can make our own judgments.
Q: Do you have any future plans for the collection?
A: A few years back I told Guy Iannuzzi (a friend and fellow member of the Advisory Board) that I was going to donate them to a library. We started talking about how nice it would be to scan them and put them on a Web site so the public could use them. But they have to be researched and annotated and indexed so that if a Web user wants to find something, there would be a way to do it. I'm hanging on to them for now and looking for a way to do that.
Q: What pleasure does owning these papers give you?
A: I consider myself the steward of this material that was never meant to last as long as it has. I'd like for people 300 years from now to be able to read these papers and be in awe like I am.