Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reclaiming history

This blog occasionally addresses non-political subjects on the weekend. The following may or may not be considered "political." Your call.

I'm here to propose a job-creation measure -- and Lord knows we need many such measures, given the unemployment figures. But I'm also here to warn you of a threat to our historical record -- to our national identity.

To help explain that threat, I'd like to bring in the Virgin Mary. No, I'm not kidding. The following example may give some insight into the larger problem.

Those of you with long memories may recall that I've taken a rather skeptical interest in the alleged apparition of Mary at Fatima, Portugal in 1917. When I was a college student many years ago (please don't be so rude as to ask how many), I decided to look up the earliest English-language article about the event. Thanks to the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, I found a remarkable 1919 issue of a magazine called Travel, which gave an on-the-scene report including details varying from the story which later passed into legend.

I'd like to see that article again.

Not long ago, I visited a research library at a University of California campus in order to look up that old story. I asked the young lady at the desk if she could direct me to the trusty old Readers Guide. Alas, the name rang no bells. The Guide, once considered indispensable, is now considered -- well, dispensable.

The only copy of the Guide in the UC system was located in an off-campus storage facility in Los Angeles called the SRLF (Southern Regional Library Facility). Using the SRLF is a two-stage process: You ask to see an item one day and you receive the volume the next day. If there's a mix-up, you may receive the wrong volume. This process can be quite inconvenient and expensive if you live 100 miles away from the book depository.

The librarian advised me to use one of many free online article databases maintained by the University of California. But all of those databases dealt with scientific or academic literature. There is no online catalog for articles appearing in general interest publications. In other words, no free online service does what the Readers Guide did.

And even if I knew the exact date of the article I want, I would have to go to the NRLF in northern California to read the damned thing. UCLA tossed out its copies of that periodical. Only one library in the state has the journal in question.

"I thought that's what the SRLF was for," I said to the librarian. "Isn't that where you put the stuff that doesn't get a lot of circulation?"

Ah, but it seems that even the SRLF is over-crowded. TheUC library system desperately needs to expand. The folks who run the operation don't know where they are going to put all the new stuff.

The lack of research library storage space is a huge problem -- a nationwide problem. Much of our history is simply being tossed into the garbage. There's no place to put it.

In the old days, research was easy -- the Readers Guide told you what was where, and then you'd walk up a flight of stairs in order to find the bound back issues on the shelves. I used to find all sorts of cool stuff at UCLA -- issues of Variety describing the brand-new Vitaphone system, back issues of the Strand featuring a fella named Sherlock, issues of Household Words featuring the work of Dickens, the very first issue of The New Yorker (with that cover), old issues of Galaxy Science Fiction, Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell, more more more. Some of you may be familiar with Henry Ford's notorious concoction The International Jew, but you have no idea how insidious that thing was until you see the original version -- serialized in a family newspaper called The Dearborn Independent, hatred nestling between ads for perfume and shoes.

The material gains much when viewed in situ. You need to read the individual article in the context of the entire publication. You need the ads, the illustrations, the letters pages, the classified sections, all of it.

Our history. Going, going, going -- soon enough, gone.

Newspapers are also endangered. The larger journals are stored on microfilm, but what about the smaller publications?

An acquaintance once gave me the chance to photocopy a ton of news clippings concerning the Garrison/Shaw trial (as dramatized in JFK) -- including a suprisingly good series which ran in the L.A. Free Press. Does anyone else out there remember the Freep (a hippie journal which had nothing to do with the creatures now called "Freepers")? If you do, you probably wouldn't mind taking another look at those old issues, packed as they are with nostalgic grooviness. You probably would also love to pore over the East Village Other and San Francisco's Oracle.

"Underground" (or non-mainstream) publications from that era may still exist. Somewhere. But if you want to see them, you'll probably have to drive far. And if they do exist, who knows how much longer we will have them, considering the shortage of library space?

Each small town has its own news journal or journals. Will the local library always have room to store that material? And do you really want microfilm to be the only option? Microfilm machines are bulky, outmoded and difficult to use -- and the onscreen results can be nearly unreadable.

Hence, this simple suggestion:


All of it. All the magazines and all the newspapers.

And by "all" I mean all.

Why ask the taxpayers of each state to fund the building of expensive new brick-and-mortar libraries when digital storage is so cheap? You can fit a lot of material onto a 1-terrabyte hard drive. Imagine what you could fit onto 500 terrabytes. The catalog of materials could be created on the fly, as each page is scanned.

The fully searchable results could be accessed by anyone -- anywhere -- at any time -- via the Library of Congress website.

Don't leave this important task to the universities or to private institutions or to local or state governments. This is a job for Uncle Sam.

Lately, we've heard much talk concerning worthy public works projects. Unfortunately, road and bridge rebuilding projects require long lead times, and the labor is rather skilled. By contrast, anyone can scan -- and we have a great many unskilled laborers in need of work. Set-up is simple; the work could start next week.

In an information age, the infrastructure of our data matters just as much as our physical infrastructure. If you're over 40, you've seen how propagandists try to rewrite recent history. Sneaky revisionism won't be easy if our cultural records are preserved and made easily available to all.

Yes, there are copyright issues. Congress can resolve those. Congress exists to make new laws and to rewrite old ones. Realistically speaking, very few living authors can hope to make money from non-fiction material written before (say) 1975. Gore Vidal is in that category, and so are a few others. But not many others. Why should the editors of Time insist on maintaining copyright protection for an article about Ike written in 1953? Why should it be legal to read such an article at the physical Library of Congress yet illegal to read the thing at the LoC website?

As the saying goes, information wants to be free. Put our history on the web. All of it.


Anonymous said...

OMG! I read that term "Readers Guide" and almost had a flashback! I think I first learned about it when first learning how to *properly* use the library!

Anonymous said...

Libraries have had the Readers Guide on CD-ROM since CD-ROMs were introduced. Around that time, also, England (or GB) undertook to digitize (by scanning) every English poem ever published.

(Why aren't you a 'student' at your local branch of a community college? You could have online access to its electronic subscriptions - EBSCOHOST being a goldmine.)

Joseph Cannon said...

If those CDs exist, they ain't there.

Joseph Cannon said...

And EBSCO is useless for the purposes described above.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Everything should be digitized and accessible. All of the US records Federal should now be unclassified and open to public scrutiny. This bailout without strings in a farce.

Gary McGowan said...

Just tried to preview comment and it got eaten. Short version -- (unpreviewed) search "Readers Guide to Periodical Literature"

Joseph Cannon said...

Gary, they're charging $440 for a retrospective guide for just 1919-1921.

If you want to look up ALL periodical articles within a 50 year period on any given subject -- and I used to do that sort of thing all the time -- you're into many thousands of dollars.

C'mon. Let's get real.

Anonymous said...

Awesome idea, Joseph!

And I so agree about : "The material gains much when viewed in situ..."

I have an old handwritten housekeeping journal from the library of an inlaw. It's a record of housekeeping records from the time when the Civil War was known as the recent conflict between the states. Not only are the prices of things interesting, but also what types of things were regular purchases, and the very phrasing of the entries. Plus, over the years, from age and laudanum, you can see the handwriting deteriorate.

I always thought some historical researcher or writer would love access to something like this. It would be great to have a place to scan and store it for all to access.

Anonymous said...

Anyone can scan, true enough, but I see the complications arising when you have millions upon millions of scanned images and need to have a filing system, index or any other way to locate the article you're looking for. I may be wrong, but I don't believe you scan search for text embedded within a scan file (as it's an image file).

katiebird said...

Joseph, I worked in the periodical department of a public library when it made it's transformation from (largely) print to (mostly) microfiche and it was heartbreaking.

We'd set whole sets of a magazine run out for the public to take and then tossed the rest.

Some of us (staff) kept what we could -- but, it was enough to make a person crazy. We couldn't save it all -- 50 years of a thousand publications!

And we (staff) KNEW that EBSCO/Gale and other digital collections weren't replacements for what we were tossing. But, the managers were committed (funny coincidence the manager who made the decision became a rep for the microfiche company the very next year)

I've worked in 4 different library systems and my first job in 3 of them was in the periodicals department -- I loved it.

I wonder if you would have better luck calling a smaller city library for a citation and then use World Cat to find a photocopy of the story?

Anonymous said...

That's typical. We're still producing Reader's Guide but you just don't know about it. Its all online or on CDROM now of course, but the damn libraries don't have it. They all used to have it. Reader's Guide live, the HW Wilson sales department is the walking dead.