March 9th, 2010

When I was a kid with a question, my mother told me to call the New York Times – they could answer any question. Indeed, I called LA 4-1000 (that's Lackawanna, if you're wondering) on a regular basis. They knew everything. Regrettably, that number doesn’t answer anymore.

I also remember the microfilm in those days, and how you could look through the old newspapers. When I was at Queens College in New York, I spent my days at the Paul Klapper Library there, spinning my way through lots of newspapers.

That’s where you did your news research – at the microfilm machine. You checked out reels and reels of microfilm and spun through them til you found what you wanted. You had to know the date of the articles or you’d get bleary-eyed and a little seasick.


Today, I called the Hawaii State Library and found that microfilm is alive and well. They get reels of the newspapers, both the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin, three months after publication. It's a little late, but some people still do research that way.

Then I called the library at the Advertiser. They have electronic archives from and after May 1995, when the Internet was born, but they also have microfilm and microfiche for earlier editions reaching into earlier times.

Although the microfilm at the State Library is organized chronologically, the Advertiser has indices based on names and subject matter, and you can find things easier that way. When they had more staff, they had hoped to convert their microfilm to digital. Now, everything is uncertain.

Reporters go to newspaper archives for background. The public goes to find family history, relatives and memories. You can find things there you’d never find on the Internet, but regrettably the Advertiser’s microfilm archives aren’t open to the public.


Although electronic archives are searchable, and that’s a huge benefit, they only include articles by local reporters and only from the mid-1990s. With microfilm copies, you get everything in the paper, including the wire services.

The Advertiser’s electronic archives are open, but dear. You have to pay $3.95 for a reprint. The rates are on the site, and are so high that many ordinary readers are not likely to pay them. Beyond that, they don't yield links that bloggers like me can include in their articles.

If you can pay, you can order a photo or story or a page of some edition that takes you back to some event or era in a kind of time travel. Can this continue? Not clear, the buyers haven’t said much about what will happen to the Advertiser's archives.

If we knew, for example, that a given edition of the Advertiser was going to be its last, that would be an edition or a front page I’d certainly like to keep. It’d certainly be worth a few bucks to have a reprint framed on my wall or for my collection, family or friends.


The word is that when David Black acquired the Star-Bulletin ten years go, he didn’t get the archives, and it’s not clear what happened to them. Will the buyers now get and keep the Advertiser’s archives? Are they worth fretting about?

Clearly, microfilm archives are bound for the glue factory. Online storage technology is cheaper, faster, more efficient and the clear winner. But do we need dedicated newspaper archives at all? Why not just move over to the Internet and rely on Google and its powerful search algorithms?

Google is great, but it focuses on recent news, not news of 100 years ago. It is not as rich or replete as a voyage through newspaper archives, and the overwhelming point is that it doesn’t give you the same hands-on time machine experience that the archives do.


The New York Times charges for old news, but it hasn’t yet started charging for the newest news online. This may be a failed or failing business model, but it does show the public’s respect, and need for, contact with old news and old newspapers.

For better or worse, a newspaper and its archives are the ongoing record and the documented evolution of the community. What happens when you lose one? What nostalgic facts and treasures will be lost, and what future understandings frustrated?

It’s all about building institutional memory, preserving access to an accurate community history and keeping an historical and consistent perspective. We know that the society that forgets the lessons of its past is unhappily bound to relearn them.


The irony is that when all is said and done we may be left without archives, microfilm or electronic, that hold the turning points and stepping stones of our development. Old newspapers give you a look at past events that you can’t get anywhere else.

Perhaps newspaper archives are already on the way to extinction. Isn’t the Internet, with all its faults, as good or better to hold the keys to our past? We have terabyte servers, advanced Google searches and long-term reliability. What more do we need to look back down the trail?

I once appeared on PBS and then asked them whether I should get copies of the videos, or do they just keep all the videos on their server. They told me no need – they’d keep the videos there forever, yes, forever. Nice thought, but how can you be sure? I got the copies anyway.

I hope we can cover these questions at the NewsMorphosis Conference at the Plaza Club on March 18th. Want to know more? Check out thinktechhawaii.com.

Posted in 1 | 1 Comment »


  1. zzzzzz:

    With the newspapers struggling to find a viable business model, I wonder if part of the answer isn't to find a way to get some cash flow from archive access.

    BTW, do the microfilm copies also include the advertisements?