Gold on them thar shelves
Newspapers are closing their libraries to save money, leaving research to journalists on the internet. It’s a crime, says SAM SOUTHGATE
IN HIS recent book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson visits the archive at the Des Moines Register in his home city in Iowa. He finds the once cavernous library shrunken to a fraction of its former size and its hundreds of thousands of prints — “the complete visual history of Des Moines in the 20th century” — destroyed to reclaim the silver in the paper.
This unhappy anecdote stuck with me. By coincidence, the newspaper where I worked as a sub-editor, The Press, in York, is owned by the same company as the Register: US multinational Gannett Corporation, through its British subsidiary Newsquest.
While not as brutal as the destruction of the Register’s archives, I have seen a similar process taking place at what was once the great Yorkshire Evening Press. Two years ago Newsquest made the librarians redundant, leaving no one to maintain the dozens of filing cabinets brimming with pictures and cuttings. Inevitably, the filing system soon fell into disarray. Then the heating broke down, leaving the library freezing and damp in winter; Newsquest deemed it too expensive to repair.
The same thing is happening across the industry, with old paper binders left to gather dust and librarians dispensed with in the drive to make cuts.
Some argue that with a mine of information available online, the days of hard-copy archives are numbered. That appears to be the thinking of James Murdoch, who last month announced the closure of News International’s research library, with 20 jobs to go. Journalists at the Sun, The Times, the News of the World and the Sunday Times will be trained to do their own research using internet databases.
But that misses the point. Newspaper libraries provide a history that should be preserved for the communities their owners claim to serve. Even today they prove their worth time and again to journalists researching a tribute piece or a long-running story.
But the Financial Times too is running down its library staff, and recently I heard of a London-based women’s magazine that threw decades of fashion photographs into a skip.
It is not an inevitability of the digital age that libraries must wither and die; it is a product of the same thinking that has led to huge cuts in jobs and resources across the industry in recent years. As such, it is something that can be resisted.