Posted by: mhdiaz | October 20, 2011

Sustainability Challenges for Historical News Archives: Paving the Way to a Better Future

Chris Cowan, ProQuest’s VP Publishing, continues his occasional series on InfoViews.  Unlocking the Value in News Content and Solutions focuses on the transformations that are occurring in the news sector and implications for cost, quality, and accessibility of news content for libraries, researchers, and the wider world.



My family lives on the edge of small town (4,300 pop.) about twenty miles west of Ann Arbor, MI. We enjoy the quiet pace of life in the town, the friendliness of the community and its commitment to the local library.  As you drive into town, welcoming signage boasts of ALA’s 2008 recognition as the best small library in the U.S., in addition to various state championships won by the local high school athletic teams.  Chelsea is a small town and proud of it.

As I type these words in the evening, I imagine sitting on our deck facing the south and gazing upon a large, vibrant flower garden which my wife so patiently nurtures. Her garden commingles with our backyard which, in turn, yields to fields and then woods.  As dusk descends at the end of this summer’s day, the magic of the evening begins with a growing crescendo of at least four species of frogs.  In the midst of bucolic splendor, I can hear their distinctive calls. They croak, chirp, and bellow while assuming center stage as the sun disappears.  The day’s final act closes in the midst of their rhythmic banter and the night descends. 

Similarly, there is a night that has descended on the research community.

A little more than three years ago, Google made a bold move to extend beyond its well known Google Books initiative.  Google announced its intention to digitize a massive amount of newspaper archives. Google’s move created quite a stir especially in the library market with an audience of researchers eager to dig into digital historical news.  Visions of the world’s newspaper archive freely available on the web excited researchers and librarians alike.  And with its massive operational capacity for digitizing books now taking aim at newspapers, the landscape of historical newspaper research was certain to change.  There was much croaking, chirping, and bellowing in the research marketplace.

By applying highly efficient scanning and OCRing technology, securing digitization rights from numerous newspaper publishers, and including ProQuest as a partner, Google proceeded to unlock physical microfilm archives and made old news content accessible on the open web.  A total of 61 million pages from 2,400 newspapers were added.  And while Google achieved a significant accomplishment in building its archival news site and digitizing so much content, the project was not meeting Google’s expectations.  While some researchers appreciated the digital archive, they were apparently not numerous enough.  Google’s business opportunity was not sufficient to sustain the ongoing investment in building the site.

Almost as suddenly as it began, Google unexpectedly announced in May that it was changing direction with its newspaper initiative.  While it would continue to support the archival site and keep it running, Google would shut down its manufacturing operation and would not build further enhancements the Google News Archive site.  Very recently, there have been noticeable changes in the accessibility to the archives; there are likely to be more changes in the future.  The research transformations expected three years ago did not quite materialize.

So now there is a vacuum for historical news research on the open web. A night has descended, and the fanfare about a new day in digital news research has been quieted.  

But, I have to believe that the power of these digital archives to illuminate the past will not die.  There is important research value in securing and protecting these archives, in making them searchable in new ways and in utilizing new research tools to mine the richness of the written word on the “first draft of history.” 

So it prompts my questions. Do you see large-scale digital news archives having an opportunity to reemerge for a new day?  If so, what would be the best approach to enrich and viably sustain digital news archives and to secure their future?    

Chris will be speaking about the Future of Online Newspapers on Friday November 4 at 4:30 PM in the Carolina Ballroom at the 2011 Charleston Conference.

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Coming in From the Cold —The Changing Landscape for News Content


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