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).