Newspaper Archives

The American Historical Association has a recent blog post over the problems caused by the lack of access to certain newspapers during transition from “Paper of Record” to Google’s news archives. The blog post notes:

Regrettably, this proves yet again Roy Rosenzweig’s warning to the profession six years ago about the “the fragility of evidence in the digital era.” While it may be beyond our capacity to adjust copyright laws and the behavior of large corporations (however well meaning), as a profession we can and perhaps should develop new habits for working with digital materials—by copying down information when we see it online, and not becoming overly dependent on any one data source or having illusions about its permanence.

Seeing the problems from the Paper of Record transitioning to Google as a call to “develop new habits for working with digital materials—by copying down information when we see it online, and not becoming overly dependent on any one data source or having illusions about its permanence,” is essentially a call to develop personal copies of existing archives and it’s a poor solution to the larger problem.*
In this particular instance, there are several concerns related to technology, trust, and the public good. For technology, the transition is a normal instance of downtime (which is still normal for any technology related transition, and its normalcy is why so many of the tech folks were amazed at the speed and elegance of the most recent transition that overcame the normal problems). However, technical issues are a parallel to the very real potential for loss if digital records are not supported and the very real problem of lost access if digital records are not supported as a need for the public good. One of the respondents to the blog post notes that perhaps newspapers should be moved into the public domain, which is a concern because copyright is often an obstacle to access, but even papers in the public domain still need financial support to ensure access to them whether in digital or physical form.
Even after covering the initial costs for requesting permissions, digitization, and hosting, new costs emerge. For instance, the University of Florida Digital Collections (UFDC) has grown by leaps and bounds in the past two years and now has over 664,269 pages of Florida newspapers alone. These newspapers include historic newspapers and current newspapers. The Digital Library Center has successfully requested and received permissions to digitize over 60 current newspapers, newspapers that in many cases were microfilmed and that are now being digitized for online access and longterm preservation (and we’re also slowly digitizing earlier years from the microfilm and will continue to do so until all of the microfilm holdings are digital).
All of the collections in UFDC, including the Florida Digital Newspaper Library, continue to grow and that growth encourages a growth in usage that, in turn, requires UFDC have more resources to support the higher usage rates. In March 2009, UFDC had 618,148 unique hits and that many hits along with the knowledge that the hits are only going to increase means that the UF Libraries have to implement additional programming to ensure the server memory usage can handle the increased load without problems for users. Other digital collections will have similar needs as they grow, and that will require support from users and the public.
Rather than attempting to copy existing resources (which would reduce the resource to a single item photocopy instead of a point within the full context and content of the database), the emphasis should be on building and supporting trusted digital archives to ensure access. The Florida Digital Newspaper Library presents one of many models, housing historic and current newspapers for open online access for all in perpetuity (and it was luck enough to build the digital model from that same model for microfilm, allowing it to utilize the existing support infrastructure that was already available).  Many archives already offer the same promises for access in perpetuity, albeit for physical access to items not yet digital, and those archives will need support to ensure they place the same importance on access and preservation for their digital collections.
Digital collections and archives need support for new and existing digital collections to build and sustain the infrastructure needed to ensure open access in perpetuity. As La Asociación Mexicana de Historia Económica (AMHE) explains in their protest to the lack of access to Mexican newspapers, the newspapers on Paper of Record are essential reference materials for research. The removal of access–even if only a delay for technical reasons–does harm. The public needs to have trust in their archival institutions, and ensuring access to physical and digital archives is a necessity to build and maintain that trust.
*{Copying single items or even attempting to copy masses of materials without infrastructure is still like photocopying. The materials would not be structured (or minimally so) and would not benefit from organization and identification. If a physical archive was in danger and photocopying was the only option, then photocopying the resource makes sense. This is not to say that photocopying is a bad solution in all cases–researches regularly photocopy materials from archives and those photocopies are then copied and shared and, in some cases, those are the only available copies for access. Photocopying is a poor solution to the overall problem, but for researchers who need access to the materials right now and who cannot wait for a new trusted archive to built over years of advocacy and funding, photocopying style solutions are wise temporary options. Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine maintains copies of many web sites and pages for just this reason.}

1 Comment

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