Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Along with the proliferation of studies and rants on the future of the printed book versus that of the digital book, we also can follow the debates about the future of the newspaper (both printed and digital). Charles Madigan, ed., -30-: The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007) brings together a number of essays from journalists, editors, media specialists, and other scholars about what has been happening with the newspaper. Since many archives acquire, store, and provide access to newspapers, Madigan’s collection will be of interest to archivists. Is this great documentary form rapidly disappearing, and will it really be replaced by other sources such as the World Wide Web?

The essays in -30- demonstrate that the changes newspapers are going through are not just the result of sweeping trends in new information technologies; the newspaper is also being affected by market and other economic factors, the shifting of ownership from individuals and families to conglomerates and business enterprises, and changing tastes by the reading public (or, even, the decline in the reading public itself). For archivists, the breadth and depth of newspaper coverage has been so affected that what the newspaper represents as a documentary source is very different today than it was even a generation ago.

Throughout the essays we get interesting observations that should provoke archivists to rethink how they consider newspapers. Joseph Epstein writes, “The time of transition we are currently going through, with the interest in traditional newspapers beginning to fade and news on the computer still a vast confusion, can be likened to a great city banishing horses from its streets before anyone has yet perfected the automobile” (p. 56). Michael Wolff writes, Nineteen-fifty marks the high point of newspaper penetration in America: 100 percent of American homes took one or more daily papers. Fifty-six years later fewer than half of American homes get one. At the current rate of decline, no homes will get any newspapers in the not-too-distant future” (p. 139).

As I was born in 1950, I grew up reading several editions of the daily newspaper and having my choice of three competing local papers. When I worked in a municipal archives we took one of the local newspapers as the paper where the official public announcements were published (even though no researcher ever came to us for the paper). When I worked in a private historical society, we took in all the local papers and clipped them (with the help of many volunteers) for the local reference files. But it’s a different world today. Such ventures are disappearing (although you can still find me reading the daily local paper every morning in the neighborhood coffee shop).


At 2:58 PM, Blogger Erin said...

I agree that newspapers are rapidly changing and the way we archive them must do the same. Its interesting that within minutes/seconds of a story being posted online, it can be modified or even taken down, never to be seen again. It changes, at least for me, the accountability that newspapers have. So, as a documentary source, my view on newspapers have definitely changed. I still read them whenever possible, both online and in print. But I am less likely to give weight to online stories.

The part of this post that struck me, however, was when you mentioned there being a decline of the reading public. I think thats an interesting statement to make. I'm not sure I agree with it entirely, but its got me thinking...

At 10:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not think that the newspaper will vanish. This post reminds me of the failed notion of the paperless office. There is a psychological formality and pertinence about paper records that have allowed for their continued relevance in the digital age. It also reminds me of the negative effect that email has had on the US Postal system. Sure business was hurt, but the Post Office remains relevant today and will most likely never vanish.

I think that there is a certain familiar charm about reading the morning newspaper while enjoying breakfast. It is something that many still practice. People also like to collect newspapers after major events occur. My family has kept our local newspapers covering the days following 9/11. I am a Red Wings and Pistons fan, and I have the Detroit Free Press from the years 1997, 1998, and 2002 when the Red Wings won the Stanely cup, and from 2004 when the Pistons upset LA in the finals. I even have the 1967 sports section from Green Bay when the Packers beat the Chiefs in Super Bowl I.

Even though most people will have access to the latest news stories practically as they develope, thanks to the web, people still like the perspective of the local newspaper the next morning.


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