Digital archives offer sterile view of the printed past

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

“Might as well face it — I’m addicted to … print!”
It’s a generational thing, I suspect. Those of us who came of age before 1980 are used to finding what we want in print. Whether we want to be informed, comforted, amused, fascinated, challenged or titillated — it’s all there.
And since the invention of moveable type, print has been the medium through which history is recorded, remembered and interpreted.
No longer.
Presidents don’t keep journals, as Ronald Reagan did; nor write letters, as Franklin Roosevelt did; nor write their own speeches in longhand as Abraham Lincoln did. Those speeches, letters and journals were transmitted to the American people through the printed page, whether in newspapers, magazines or books.
But ours is the age of disintermediation. Future presidential libraries will contain no papers — just a server or two, from which anyone, anywhere, can access the president’s electronic footprints, the e-mails, the bills, the strategy sessions, the policy deliberations — few of which ever appeared in print.


Oronite Chemical Co. advertised its “synthetic detergents” in the September 1949 issue of “Fortune.” No longer an independent company, Oronite’s name endures as a division of Chevron.

And that’s too bad, if nonetheless inevitable. Words on paper have a depth and richness that electronic media can never match.
As a self-confessed print addict, I collect old newspapers and old magazines. That’s a function usually associated with libraries — but as far as most libraries are concerned, that’s so last year.
Nowadays, libraries no longer preserve physical copies of newspapers or magazines, keeping them only as long as it takes to transfer the editorial content to microfilm.
For many years, the Pikes Peak Library District kept a full run of The Gazette racked on its shelves, comprising more than 40,000 newspapers. But space considerations, and the continual deterioration of the collection, led the library to transfer all of it to microfilm and jettison the newspapers.
Future historians will, I suspect, regret that decision.
Let’s look, for example, at the September 1949 issue of “Fortune,” which I picked up a few years ago at a yard sale.
It’s big, measuring 12.5 inches by 10 inches, compared with today’s standard of 11 inches by 8 inches. At 188 pages, it has as much content as a modern business magazine of 267 pages. Its graphics are, even by today’s standards, bold and original.
The cover story, titled “Detroit — no Downturn?” featured a photo layout so inventive that a friend at the daily newspaper intends to copy it for the auto issue.
The magazine boasts 112 advertisers, most of them companies that no longer exist.
Only a dozen — CBS, the Denver Post, the Philadelphia National Bank and J. Walter Thompson among them — are in businesses other than manufacturing, transportation or building.
There’s an ad for Wyandotte, bragging about the company’s “giant limestone kilns” and the “vast quarries that feed them.” Then there’s a full page ad for GATX, inviting customers to “take a good look at your methods of shipping bulk liquids.”
Foote Brothers promotes “better power transmission through better gears,” Oronite Chemical recommends its D-40 industrial detergent and Union Carbide sings the praises of … carbon!
During 1949, America was an industrial powerhouse, whose manufacturing technology dominated the world. Long-defunct railroads, steel mills and manufacturers created and sustained industries that underpinned generations of prosperity.
Many of those industries have disappeared or migrated overseas.
On page 8, there’s a full-page ad featuring a pen and ink rendition of an angular, “modern” factory owned by the Allen B. Dumont Laboratories. The headline: “Guess who operates the world’s largest television assembly plant?” During 1949 — Dumont. Now? Somewhere in Asia.
Judging by content, American business was utterly dominated by middle-aged white men. There isn’t a single person of color in the entire 188 pages and almost every adult woman pictured is wearing an apron.
Only one photo shows a working woman — Felice Yahr, a research associate at Fortune. Yet Fortune’s masthead, which includes women editors, art directors and research associates is, in retrospect, a harbinger of the future — of an America whose dominance is no longer in manufacturing but in media, led equally by women and men.
As absorbing as is the editorial product (would you believe a long piece about Goethe’s “Faust”?), the ads are far more interesting — and far more informative.
Consider Monsanto’s full-color back cover ad, touting the virtues of chemical food additives: “Ethavan adds vanilla-like flavor to ice cream … phosphates make better cakes … sodium benzoate preserves foods … processed cheese is made with Monsanto sodium phosphates.”
A different time, indeed; imagine a company today highlighting its chemical contributions to the food chain!
Saved as ghostly images on microfilm, none of the richness, depth, and beauty of this magazine and its contemporaries will survive, except in obscure archives. The vivid color, the use of different magazine stock to separate sections, the look and feel of the magazine … mostly gone.
And as for past issues of local pubs like The Gazette, The Independent or the Business Journal — they’re likely gone. The stories might be archived online, but the physical papers have vanished with the worlds they once chronicled.
That’s because libraries, in the age of Google, misunderstood their function. They are no longer what they once were — repositories of information available nowhere else. Once information is digitized, it’s everywhere. What’s important and unique is the archival function of the local library.
Libraries should re-dedicate themselves to acquiring and preserving local ephemera — newspapers, political campaign flyers, door hangers for neighborhood pizzerias and the like. That’s the raw material of history, of ours or of any previous time.
And don’t forget electronic media — preserve Web sites such as High Plains Messenger and Scene in the Springs, that once illuminated our city and are now dark.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep mining my old mags and newspapers for ideas. And did I mention that I have the entire 1924 run of The Gazette’s predecessor, The Daily Telegraph, in a carefully bound volume?
No, the library can’t have it back.
And I’m keeping “Fortune,” too, just for the investment tips. Listen to this: “Argentine horsehair may soon pass into limbo … last year the U.S. imported 2,640,000 pounds of horsehair, worth over $3 million … from Argentina. The Rubberset Co. of Newark is now producing a horsehair substitute called Caslen.”
Call your broker! Sell horsehair short!
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.