Historians and the Preservation of Newspaper Content, Part 2

Part 1 — Part 2 — Part 3 — Part 4

As I mentioned in the previous post, in the past decade or so, some large newspapers have digitized their contents. For example, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe have all been stored as digital complete runs, — meaning every word/image of every issue ever published has been scanned into a digital “archive.”

Access to those archives are managed through a company called ProQuest, which earns revenue by licensing use of these archives. You can visit the Globe’s website, for example, and, by paying a small fee, gain access to and search the entire Globe archive. ProQuest also licenses the use of these digital runs to university and college libraries where students and faculty can access them for free. (If you need to do research of any kind, a university library is an incredible resource.)

So in theory, the content of paper newspapers have been preserved. BUT: What’s not clear is the future of the electronic versions of newspapers, nor is it clear what will happen to the web contents of defunct newspapers. Remember: an online version of a newspaper is different from its print version. The ads are different. The content differs, etc.

This is important for historians in particular. In the past thirty or so years, a number of historians have studied newspaper advertising as a way of analyzing shifts in consumer tastes, in the rhetoric of advertising, and so forth. (See especially the work of Roland Marchand.) Indeed, advertisements are key primary documents for historical research.

But as I noted above, the ad content of a paper newspaper is typically quite different than that its electronic counterpart. Moreover, the ad content of an online edition is dynamic: it changes from day to day.

Think about it: If I visit, say, the New York Times website and search for an article published in 1985, it will come up with either no ads, OR with ads attached from the 2009 edition. What I won’t see is the context that surrounded that article when it first appeared in 1985. For historians, that’s a problem, so from historians’ perspective, how and what gets saved matters.

What’s not clear to me is if anyone has pondered this problem. I perused the website of the American Historical Association, the main professional organization for professional historians. If they’ve got a plan,they’re keeping it under wraps. (I kind of doubt they do. Their own website is astoundingly ill-maintained.)

NEXT: Preserving and archiving newspapers’ paper trails, their websites, and their digital editions.

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