I Read It In The Newspaper

You would think that the largest library in a city would keep an archive of that city’s newspaper, right? And you would also probably expect the archive to be in a single format, like microfilm, or digital, or hard copy, right? Or at least have an index that includes all formats?

Welcome to the world of serials, where libraries, vendors, journalists and aggregators dance the money dance around the rights to publish and distribute back issues of a newspaper.  The Tasini decision in 2001 forced vendors to remove articles from their databases written by free-lance journalists who had not explicitly authorized republishing in digital format.  Add to that a publisher’s decision to grant exclusive content distribution rights to an aggregator you don’t subscribe to.  This may or may not affect issues published to-date, but certainly affects digital access to future articles in that newspaper.  It may even force you to buy the print edition, if one still exists, to provide your patrons with the newspaper’s content.

And what about microfilm? Reader/printers have become archaic, and many libraries are no longer purchasing – and no longer maintaining – their equipment. How will this affect access to the hundreds – maybe thousands – of microfilm reels in storage that contain images of your city’s newspaper back to its founding over 150 years ago?   Without equipment, who can read them?  One company is addressing the issue by producing a “digital microfilm” product, but it is unwieldy.  First the newspaper is filmed and microfilm reels created.  Then the reels are digitized and made available online.  Result? lag time almost double that of receiving the film – at one point, our local newspaper had a 5-month delay between publication and receipt of access to the digital files.

Add to the above, the issue of indexing.  The gap years between no index at all and the beginning of online indexing (1900 – 1984) are covered by an index created in-house by librarians who thumbed through the papers daily and included only articles about events in the city and county – no national or international news.  In 1984, the online index begins, which does include national and international news but does not include articles written by freelancers.   Other aggregators who index only some of the articles in said local newspaper – maybe only the business articles, or only a percent of articles published – seldom make this evident in product descriptions.  And of course, microfilm is not searchable at all, but relies on third-party indexes.

To maintain a 100% archive of your city’s newspaper, then, becomes a juggling act: how long do you keep the print? How much longer will your microfilm readers hold up? If one aggregator’s backfile of your paper is deeper than another’s, but the other included materials are vastly different, can you justify buying both or all? And when a newspaper publisher switches from one Image Edition vendor to another, causing your newspaper aggregator to lose access to the images … You may end up purchasing triple or quadruple access to that newspaper and have a patchwork of indexes that overlap in places and leave indexing gaps in other places.

Another wrinkle is the demand for obituaries.  As Americans age, the urge to record family history and find information about their antecedents grows stronger.  None of the online indexes covers classified ads, which is how obituaries are frequently treated.  However, image editions of the newspaper, which do include the classifieds, are searchable, but go back only 2 or three years.

As formats and technology change more and more quickly, and as our public learns to find information online, there is pressure to provide only a “convenient” archive of our local paper: the one that causes the fewest headaches.  If that becomes practice, we will lose an irreplaceable body of information – local information – that is not published anywhere else!

What’s the answer? We need to include in our mission the collection and retention of local history as published in our newspaper.  In particular, we need to preserve all the indexing that currently exists.  Pie in the sky would be to integrate all the indexes.  If  we fail to do this, in 20 years, local news before the 1990s may become unfindable, and that would be tragic.

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