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Newspaper Archives: Let the Walls Come Tumbling Down

Jenny “Shifted Librarian” Levine and I got a link from Jay Rosen’s Pressthink, as he exhorted newspapers to open their archives.

Jay’s exhilarating clarion call to open newspaper archives won’t get any argument (and could possibly get quite a bit of support) from Libraryland. It just needs development and refinement. He could continue his discussion by applying his journalism skills to discussing some of the fierce battles faced by academia in the Serials Wars–fascinating (and sadly underreported) struggles between universities and publishers, with some remarkable success stories, in which big “U’s” used the threat of dropping subscriptions and starting their own open-access journals to finally stabilize, if not push down, the grossly overpriced, spiraling-out-of-control academic journals that buttress the academic tenure-track pyramid scheme. (The “Hollywood” angle: Elsevier skyrocketed your kid’s tuition.)

The academirati understand they have won minor skirmishes, not the war (do the math, based on historical trend lines of journal prices, and you’ll see that in decades, universities wouldn’t be able to buy anything but overpriced serials–and your kid will be an indentured servant for life). This dissatisfaction has bred new ideas for peer-reviewed publishing, most elegantly PLoS, the Public Library of Science, with its impressive and growing list of high-quality, open-access, peer-reviewed journals.

Whether we are discussing Elsevier’s journals or the archives for the Petticoat Junction Daily News, some strategery is called for. Earlier this week, in an email posted to a discussion list Jay is on, I outlined some of the challenges publishers and journalists will face in opening newspaper archives.(Normally, out of courtesy, I protect list privacy, but since these are my own words, I’m fair game to myself.) I wrote:

“I’m a huge fan of open information (the Open Access movement is an exciting development in peer-reviewed journals … ). But after reading the comments about newspaper archives here and on some blogs, I’m just cautioning (perhaps entirely unnecessarily, and if so I apologize) that there’s much more to the newspaper archive game than per-article sales. Newspaper archives are part of a massive industry with lots of money sloshing around. For that matter, given Google Scholar, we’ll have to deal with Google, won’t we? (I almost wrote ‘you’ll,’ but among those in the information communities, whether they are ‘first mile’ or ‘last mile,’ it’s us’n, not you’ll.)”

The first battlefield is whether the bean-counters buy it. If they don’t, in the short run we’re back to relying on commercial newspaper archives. These are better than no archives, but not as good as open archives. We have some examples of newspapers that leave their archives open. What can we learn from these papers?

At any rate, glad to see this issue get some ink in the press outside of librarianship. (Don’t you love it when some other, flossier, higher-profile profession rediscovers something we’ve been saying among ourselves for ages, and gives it due time in the press?) Pushing down the walls of newspaper and journal archives is a key example of a potential “first mile/last mile” collaboration between content creators and content providers.

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