Archives in peril: Generations of history, gone with the flip of a switch

We're addicted to free information, and we only have ourselves to blame. When the Web emerged, newspapers and magazines saw it as a sort of add-on -- a guest bedroom in their fancy mansion, where they could give away their best work in the deluded (and rarely substantiated) knowledge that readers would be moved to pay for the real thing. Publishers failed to see the Web for what it became: the coming standard of information distribution.

But the rules of economics are hardier than the rules of marketing, and it turns out that we won't pay for what we can get for free. Every day, more publications are switching off the lights for the last time, and tragedies abound.

In late December, Heartland Publications, which produces about 50 community newspapers, filed for bankruptcy and called for restructuring, bringing the collected stories of 50 smaller regions another step closer to oblivion. When creditors liquidate what's left of our journalistic institutions, the first voices to be silenced are our community watchdog reporters. A lifetime's worth of written archives fall under authorities that no longer have a monetary incentive to preserve them. We're losing libraries of local history, one closing at a time.

When the owners of The South Florida Blade were forced into Chapter 11 this year, its Website, which had hosted its archives for public use, could no longer take in money. So the plug was pulled. Everything went. Some of the staff was soon rehired at a salvaged version of the publication -- now owned, tellingly, by a web company -- but the data maintained by the old owners, as well as any backups that might have existed in the paper's offices, was destroyed.

I recently called the Blade's editor, Dan Renzi, to ask about the fate of all that written history. He couldn't chat right away, because he was an hour away from his office, at a library one county over: the only place he could find back issues of his own newspaper. "We used to scoff: Who saves newspapers anymore?" Renzi said, once we caught up. "And thank God they did."

Like many editors, Renzi had always relied on the Webmasters at his paper to take care of digital storage. But when those people lost their jobs in the corporate shuffle, the institutional memory of the Miami-based Blade vanished within hours. '"I presume it's still on a server somewhere, but I don't think anyone knows where," Renzi said. "I personally would never have had the foresight to think something like this could happen."

Without the archive, the public loses access to years' worth of important journalism. "The loss of a newspaper is sort of the loss of a community's memory," says Mark Sweeney, who is in charge of preserving newspapers at the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill. "When you want to understand what a community is like, if you don't have your newspaper for that community, you've really lost something significant."

That includes the Blade's interviews with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist that provide a public record of his shifting positions on human-rights issues. And in the case of the Washington Blade, Renzi's D.C.-based sister publication, it meant that the first interview by a successful Presidential candidate to a gay publication in the U.S. -- a piece of American history -- was deleted.

Imagine if historians discovered that an abolitionist newspaper in the 1830s had interviewed Abraham Lincoln, and subsequently shredded the original story. Historians of the next century will likely feel the same way about our cavalier attitude toward preserving the events of our times.

The Washington Post was concerned enough about the Washington Blade to call upon the government to honor the Blade's archive as a crucial historical record, and to work to ensure its preservation and availability: "Every effort should be made to keep the archive accessible to researchers and historians."

Web-only, and wobbly

So far, the government has not picked up on that call. And a morass of laws, available technology, and funding prevents libraries from comprehensively taking snapshots of newspapers' Websites. Libraries can store physical copies of a publication, Sweeney says, but they're not currently allowed to crawl the Web and save online content without getting the publishers' permission.

The issue surfaced yet again this month, when Nielsen Business Media announced that it's pulling the plug on the book-criticism institution Kirkus Reviews. Although Kirkus has been around since 1933 -- launched during the worst year of the Great Depression -- Nielsen didn't plan for preserving its archive of 80 years of intellectual cultural criticism. "There are no immediate plans regarding the archives," a Nielsen rep says.

If a publication isn't spiked outright, the current trend is to kill its printed version and allow the publication's name to live online with a skeleton crew, in the manner this year of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Ann Arbor News, National Geographic Traveler, and countless papers from small communities that perished without much national note. But each such loss puts a publication's archives in a precarious position: The Library of Congress has not succeeded in persuading the P-I's owners to let it take snapshots of its Web content, Sweeney says.

Not that there's never a savior. When the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News went entirely to the Web in February, a Denver library stepped in to receive its printed holdings. But unless papers publish stories of national significance, Sweeney said, preserving their contents usually falls under the purview of state libraries, historical societies, and universities -- none of which usually have the cash or manpower to contend with ever-complicating digital preservation methods.

For many newspapers, going Web-only is a last-ditch, fingernails-in-the-windowsill refusal to dismiss traditions and brands that took decades and generations to build. And if that experiment fails -- if the American appetite for 100% free content continues unabated -- even those archives will, for reasons of economic sustainability, cease to exist.

Libraries alone can't take up the slack. Even if they could store back issues, they could only do that in physical form. While our society celebrates a shift to digital communication, and the supposed propagation of information at light speed, gaps in funding and accessibility make it impossible to research the past without driving to the local library to find a physical copy.

What's more, the difference between public access of our community history and the sudden, permanent silence of our grandfathers is as small as the plug that goes from a server to a wall. Mark Evans, editor of TucsonCitizen.com, has seen the stories and photos of its printed progenitor fall into a temporary limbo. "The electronic archive is still available online, but search engines have been returning fewer results," he says.

The Decade of the Wisdom Gap

Few money-minded entrepreneurs would pay to store mountains of back issues with neither income to support the facilities nor financial benefit to keeping the servers running just to keep the archives available. That's one reason The Washington Post called on the government to step into a more aggressive preservation role.

But the government has a poor track record in preserving its own data, let alone that of its citizens. Experts have been toiling for years to piece together a catastrophic gap in bookkeeping by the Bush administration, which for two years did not back up most of its important, seemingly mundane electronic correspondence on vital civil matters. In mid-December, 22 million administration e-mails previously thought lost restored three months of American history, encompassing the start of the Iraq War and the response to Hurricane Katrina. But there's more work to be done, starting with data recovery and continuing as the Obama administration struggles to create a new structure for durable data preservation.

The expectation has always been that our libraries would perform that service. But libraries, of course, have seen their budgets slashed to the bone. In many small cities -- particularly those that can no longer support a daily newspaper -- the libraries are cutting back on hours of operation. There's no way they can adopt the orphaned morgues of shuttered publications.

The '00s may not go down not as the decade of great advances in communication we'd thought. Looking back, historians may see it as the decade of a tragic wisdom lag. Technology, funding, and copyright law have permitted millions of photos and stories to vanish.

Since the Web stormed into public life, a little more than a decade ago, we have left behind precious little for our future biographers. Your Facebook status updates, your Tweets, your e-mailed letters to the editor, your most thoughtful comments on what you read online -- what, if anything, has been archived? What can be traced to you in years to come? And if it exists only in ones and zeroes, will it even be there to discover by those in the future, who want to know who you were, or how you lived?

The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo warned about what happens when we rely on spoken ideas. "Words are lost on the air," he wrote. "You never know really what you said in the last conversation, whereas if you sit down and write it concisely, the definition of your problem, it commands a man's attention."

The internet is a conversation, and as long as we fail to ensure the survival of our conversations, words are forever being lost on the air. And without a record of ourselves, who were we?

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