by Victoria McCargar
Historically, when a newspaper ceased publication, the photographs, clippings and bound volumes were handed off to the local historical society or public library. They sat there, and many continue to sit there, until the organization decided what to do with them.
While newspapers have been around for centuries, they weren’t considered worthy of preservation and indexing until the late 19th Century. Today, newspapers are largely digital. Their content is multimedia, and there is a dwindling presence of the physical edition as news moves online. Unfortunately, this revolution in newsgathering has made obsolete the tried-and-true archives methods (known as benign neglect), and along with them the old handoff paradigm. Instead, historical societies and libraries are struggling to deal with this new digital content and how it will be preserved for future generations. The fact that digital archives are much more fragile than paper ones is a problem of which many publishers are completely unaware.
On April 10-12, 2011, the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, MU Libraries and Mizzou Advantage, and the Library of Congress, brought together 125 professionals from archives, historical societies, libraries – and, yes – journalism, to discuss the end of benign neglect and the growing need to rescue threatened news collections. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that the Fourth Estate has been so represented, and at a high level, and it was a tremendous achievement just getting publishers in the room.
This paper reviews the issues of newspaper preservation confronting us today and how they were applied in the structure and content of the Newspaper Archive Summit held in Columbia, Missouri. Outcomes and takeaways of Summit I are discussed, as well as the potential shape and content of Summit II.
Among the takeaways of Summit I were:
- Stakeholders from diverse professions (historians and genealogists, librarians, journalists, news aggregators) have confusing and often conflicting ideas about “digitization” and “preservation.” This points to a need for basic education with the goal of developing unified interest around key topics and priorities.
- There is a need to identify and prioritize risks of threatened news collections, both publicly and privately owned.
- Given the pace of downsizing and number of papers walking away from print publication, time is of the essence. The longer digital collections sit in storage, the greater the risk they’ll be lost altogether.
- A large body of research worldwide has gone into digitizing newspapers printed before 1923. It’s time to start applying it to the current situation.
- Necessary key components of basic education include economics of ownership, copyright and the cost of preserving (or not preserving).
- Recruitment for Summit II is of prime importance to ensure that the right voices are heard – and are listening.
- The journalists at Missouri and other schools will need to play an even larger role and reach out to their peers at newspapers. The discussion must be elevated above “it’s a library problem.” It’s also a publishing problem, a journalism problem.
The mission of the Newspaper Archive Summit was to get the conversation going. In that, it certainly succeeded. The presence of so many competing demands and what some referred to as “biases” merely illustrates that preservation in general (and of newspapers in particular) is a very wide discussion indeed. It has many stakeholders occupying silos. But they have one thing in common: All recognize that this stuff, these news archives, this “history on the wing,” this “first draft of history,” is worth the difficult and urgent tasks ahead.