Tom Eblen

Meet the people trying to save today’s news as tomorrow’s history

The British Library opened a new National Newspaper Building in West Yorkshire in 2015 as part of its commitment to preserving print and digital media from around the world.
The British Library opened a new National Newspaper Building in West Yorkshire in 2015 as part of its commitment to preserving print and digital media from around the world. British Library

Sometimes, I never know where a column will lead.

Last month, I wrote about the newspaper industry’s shift from ink-on-paper to the Internet. While I agreed that digital delivery was the future of news, I worried that much of today’s online journalism might be lost to future historians and researchers.

That column prompted an invitation to speak to the News Media Section of International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. University of Kentucky Libraries happened to be hosting that group’s annual conference in Lexington.

I don’t know how valuable my remarks were to the 40 or so librarians and archivists from around the world who attended, but I was fascinated by their work.

Librarians at public institutions and archiving companies have been working for years to digitize and make available the world’s newspapers dating back to the 1600s. It is a daunting job, but easy compared to the task of gathering and preserving today’s “digital born” news from websites, blogs, videos and constantly evolving social media platforms.

The conference included presentations by representatives from the national libraries of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands, as well as archivists from China, Nepal, Germany and Mexico. U.S. presenters came from Kentucky, Illinois, Oregon, Wisconsin, Texas, California and Missouri.

Part of their challenge is technical. News used to be linear: a daily or weekly newspaper or a radio or TV broadcast. But online news is dynamic, constantly being updated.

As fast as publishers and their tech geeks come up with new systems for creating and distributing journalistic content, archivists and their tech geeks must come up with ways to preserve, store and, when possible, make it available for others to use.

A patchwork of international copyright laws often make that difficult. Some publishers are reluctant to allow access to material they think they might be able to sell someday. But they also are reluctant to invest in their own archiving systems, because the loss of traditional advertising revenue has left them strapped for cash and scrambling to re-invent their delivery systems and business models.

“That’s part of the problem,” said Ron Larson of the Wisconsin Historical Society, who formerly was an archivist for a newspaper in Madison. “It’s now up to historical societies, universities and libraries.”

With digital news sites, the trick is not just capturing text, but photos, videos, advertisements and the look and feel of online presentations.

Nationally, there are several efforts to digitally preserve old newspapers, such as the Library of Congress’ National Digital Newspaper Program, and to collect and preserve digitally delivered news, such as the University of Missouri’s Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. It sponsors the Journalism Digital News Archive and an annual onference of new ideas and techniques called Dodging the Memory Hole, a reference from George Orwell’s novel 1984.

In Lexington, UK Libraries Special Collections microfilmed Kentucky newspapers from 1950 until 2012 and has been doing digital preservation of newspapers across the state since 1998. That has included many old newspapers, such as the Lexington Public Library’s collection of The Kentucky Gazette, which began publication in 1787 as the first newspaper west of Pittsburgh. Much of that content is now available online.

UK Libraries now has a project to collect digital news from Kentucky publishers on a regular basis through an evolving system called Paper Vault. But efforts have been limited by available funding and staff.

When you look at the issue from a global perspective, things get even more complex.

The British Library, which has more than 60 million newspapers from around the world dating back 300 years, built a new National Newspaper Building at Boston Spa, West Yorkshire, in 2015. That collection continues to grow, especially as there are more “hyper-local” publications.

The British Library also has been collecting digital content since 2004, said Patrick Fleming, the British Library’s head of business change. Since archivists don’t always know what information people will value in the future, the impulse is to collect everything because “if you don’t collect it, you miss that opportunity.”

“We’re building this incredible legacy of digital content and we have absolutely no idea where it’s going to end up,” Fleming said. “What’s easy to say is that it’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.”