New Orleans collector preserves decades of city’s newspapers

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It’s 1908, so cars aren’t crowding Canal Street yet. Just the streetcars and horses and carriages to shuttle people up and down, stopping off in this year at The Grunewald, not yet The Roosevelt.

“See how this says ‘Dream World’ right here?” said Joseph Makkos, pointing to the theater’s awning near the Royal Street intersection. “Look at that. That’s where I wanna go.”

The “View on Canal Street” photograph dominates the center spread, pages 10 and 11, of the Dec. 6, 1908 edition of the Illustrated Sunday Magazine for The Daily Picayune.

Makkos wants people to see the newspaper photo like this, see their Canal Street like this, 111 years ago but still lively and in detail.

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It helps that he has some 30,000 plastic tubes of New Orleans newspapers. Inside each tube is a different issue of the daily paper or an additional magazine or special section, most of which are also preserved in archival Mylar. Over the past six years, he’s gotten to know his collection of New Orleans newspapers, registered as NOLA DNA, by speaking with librarians, archivists and preservationists. Most recently, he’s moved the conversation toward technology.

What can be learned from a collection of daily dispatches over the course of several decades? What data can genealogists and scholars review? What about the comics? And the photos of New Orleans? What if those pictures could be on a T-shirt? Or easily shared to social media?

It will take a portal with better, more nimble search tools for people to access the information and graphics within these newspapers. Makkos is on a mission to create that toolkit via his company Intelligent Archives L3C.

Right now, the public archives in Newsbank splits that Dec. 6, 1908 Canal Street panorama in two. Each half is an inky black-and-white PDF, shading and detail lost when the newspaper was reduced to microfilm, a “destruction for preservation” process that favored saving space over quality of newsprint: what was once on a broadsheet was recreated as tiny images on film.

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Even finding the Canal Street photo in the clunky archive database is a task, and that’s for people who know to search for it. Nothing in those two PDFs suggests that the original photo is bright and inviting, the shadows of buildings lightly shading the street and the entrance to the Dream World theater aflutter with men in suits and women in dresses and long skirts.

Makkos has photos and stories like this “for days”: his main archive collection spans 1888 to 1929, from the end of the Cotton Exposition to the Stock Market Crash, including the creation of The Times-Picayune in 1914 from The Daily Picayune and The Times-Democrat.

Originally collected by the British Library, the New Orleans newspapers changed ownership twice before landing with Makkos in 2013. He answered a Craigslist ad, then hopped on a bike and beat the heat and a flat tire outside Betsy’s Pancake House.

“You’re late,” he was told. Makkos said it’s probable he at least arrived sooner than a Dumpster.

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So the New Orleans newspaper collection again evaded its demise, as it had years ago when Nazi pilots bombed the storage facility where it was housed north of London, Makkos learned from the book “Double Fold.” The collection didn’t return to New Orleans until shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and since then, the Mylar and plastic tubes have been an effective shield against a humid climate.

“It’s a miracle this is back in New Orleans,” Makkos said. He’d like the collection to endure.

At age 12, Makkos took his first job as a paperboy with The Plain Dealer in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, where his parents operated an antiques store. Being in antique shops encouraged a wonder and awe of old, material culture, Makkos finally explained, before quickly segueing into the story of his own antique collection of printing presses and more than 500 cases of letterpress type from the same era as the newspaper collection.

This year is the first time that Makkos’ collection of antiques and newspapers has been all in one place. It’s been in Bywater and Mid-City locations since 2013, but in 2019 he moved into the 1600 block of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. The space is long and narrow, but with two-story ceilings and a loft area above a deep exterior entryway.

Upstairs in the loft, there are a few tables full of newspapers not in tubes, and a set-up of computers and scanners. Makkos has already scanned thousands of newspapers and graphics, he said, a process that takes a matter of minutes, particularly since the newspapers are single sheets in the tubes and not bound into books. Once scanned, the graphic could end up on any thing at any size.

Looking out from the loft over the rest of the warehouse, there are black trash bags full of tubes full of newspapers stacked high to the ceiling. Makkos is in the process of organizing and consolidating, getting rid of the tubes and storing the Mylar-covered papers within a few hundred flat file drawers. He has tentative plans to turn the space into a part-museum, part-print and book-making shop.

This of course all with a goal of digitizing those archives, making it easier to creatively share and reimagine what’s tucked within the newspaper’s pages.

So far, Makkos has used the collection to inform writing about New Orleans’ past, and hopes the same can be done, but much easier, in the future. He’s exploring various opportunities for the collection, keeping an open mind that focuses on greater public access.

“I would not want another archive from another city from any other time period,” he said.


Information from: The Times-Picayune,