"If someone's offering a duplicate [of a newspaper or periodical], we won't take it, because there's only so much storage space," Wilmot said. "We already have over 35,000 newspapers here."
On a door in a dimly lit hallway, Wilmot punched in a security code. In a small room, heavy with the pungent aroma of paste, she explained that she's been busy reattaching slivers of pages that have fallen off historic newspapers. This represents the backbone of why people flock to the Newseum.
"I can humidify things with a cardboard box and cool steam. It helps relax the newsprint," she said.
Then she smooths the newly whole page using blotter paper and a weight. From there, it's shipped downtown and put on display.
In yet another room that she oversees, Wilmot stood before a seamless array of commercial-grade steel shelving. Each shelf brimmed with 600 archival boxes containing old newspapers and magazines. The low hum that engulfed the room, she said, is the air-conditioning system. Ideally, to preserve the newsprint, the thermometer must be kept at a constant 68 degrees and the humidity at 45 percent. She gingerly opened one of the boxes to produce an original Boston News-Letter from 1719. "It was the second newspaper in America," she said, the enthusiasm in her voice bordering on contagious.
While ink on newsprint has spanned generations, it wasn't always the case, she said. Before the 19th century, newspapers were printed on cotton and linen, which held up well over time. In fact, newspapers used to run ads that read "Bring Us Your Old Rags" and paid 2 cents for each contribution. Later, in order to save money, newsprint replaced cotton, Wilmot said, but trees and their acidity fall far short in terms of how they stand up to the ravages of time.
The contents of another warehouse-like space evoked a deep sense of nostalgia. At first blush, it looked like nothing more than dusty goodies at a garage sale. But look closer revealed an inventory pulsating with a tasty buffet of relics that, once upon a time, belonged to icons: a desk crafted by Andy Rooney and the anchor desk where Peter Jennings once sat and peered into the camera. Other hardware includes a Linotype machine culled from the era when newspapers were produced using hot metal; a Buffalo Evening News delivery wagon; a black and white TV; and a USA Today news rack that made it, largely unscathed, through Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In another corner stood a piece of the Berlin Wall and sections of the broadcast towers that toppled with the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
Another quiet corridor led to a vast carpentry shop that bubbled with tools of the trade: a metal-cutting band saw, a tig welder and a table saw. Overseeing the construction of the exhibits for the Newseum is Nate Crouch. He's charged with the task of infusing the exhibits with visual splendor while making sure they're durable. Presently, Crouch is laser-focused on fortifying a camera housing -- part of the Newseum's high-tech, hands-on approach – so visitors can "still engage with them but not damage them."
The majority of the exhibits, Crouch said, are born of wood, metal or plastic. Crouch, whose father was a furniture maker, asserts it makes sense to make the exhibits in-house, given the quick turnaround from the conceptualization phase to the workshop. "It's more efficient and more economical ... especially if some of the elements of the design change."
Meanwhile, Wilmot , an Illinois native, acknowledged that working where the echoes of history abound can bring random moments of meditation. For example, once, when she was pulling out a box from "a creepy cabinet," she realized it held a newspaper from the days of Jim Crow, when racial segregation was the rule of law. The newspaper she plumbed had an article instructing "coloreds" to go one way and "whites" to go another. The surreal image sparked sadness in her.
"Oh, you feel that shame. It was like 'Why did we do that?' she said. "You look back with today's eyes, and you're judging it. So it gets personal."
For Mastroianni, who holds a master's degree in library science from Catholic University, the job is not defined by the age of the search engine. The time-honored tradition of sleuthing is still en vogue.
"It's like peeling an onion," he said. "You can find a hundred sources on the Internet. We try to go back to primary sources. Is there more to this than what I'm seeing? Does the author have an agenda? It's making sure you're not just seeing one side of the story."