So often, stories are told without historical context and appear scant and unfinished. Michelle Leon, who manages Avusa’s library, explains why it is so important to archive media.
Where would history commentators be without access to newspaper archives? In the past year, we have had the daughter of Verwoerd’s assassin visit us, looking for her father’s statement from the dock. We were also visited by a collector of military memorabilia, a graduate student tracking the history of the hospitality industry in this country, a film researcher looking at the history of music rights in this country and publishers needing material, both written and illustrative, for books. We also had writers themselves needing to check facts, and photographic researchers wanting pictures that illustrate historical events.
We have also done our bit for the treasury – a senior South African Revenue Services official visits us annually to check names of the rich and famous. The revenue service checks their tax status! We also have straightforward requests like the front pages of a newspaper on the day of a child’s birth or a marriage. And there are the long-term projects such as the delivery of all our stories to a university that is studying the evolution of South African English. The list goes on. And luckily we have been able to find most things that our clients need.
Newspaper owners have not always preserved their archives with consideration. That is, certainly not the hard-copy versions. I started my career as a newspaper librarian with a large cardboard box of photographs and a desperate newsroom staff who could not find anything. The need to make these images accessible was my first challenge and, in those days, the appellation of ‘morgue’ was really appropriate. Most of the pictures were of dead people – images donated by another newspaper that deemed them disposable.
Paper is not the easiest medium to conserve as it is heavy, flammable, disintegrates in damp conditions and takes up lots and lots of space. So, when owners are under pressure to cut costs, they often look to the archives to save space and money. Digitisation has saved the space, but not necessarily the money. And the value of archives is not easily quantifiable. They are, however, indispensible to a company whose objective is to inform and entertain its customers and whose broader obligation is to help conserve the history of the country.
Newspaper archives do not only serve an internal clientele. They are the mirror of the communities they serve. As well as giving information on particular events, they present a social commentary of the times they cover. They enable you to trace the evolution of language, social customs, fashion, political opinion, economic trends and business cycles – every aspect of life at that time. The study of these events provides invaluable material for historians, social scientists and analysts in every field. And those are just the stories.
But how do we demonstrate the value of old newspapers to a new generation who thinks history started with the internet? When talking to a group of new interns at the beginning of the year, I asked them the first thing they did when tasked with covering a news story. They stared at me blankly and mumbled, unsure what I expected of them. Of course, the answer I wanted was that they needed to know what had been written previously on the topic or person. Without an historical perspective on what they were about to write, where would they begin?
Journalists are trained to write, edit and design. They are not always taught the value of the resources that already exist that can improve their stories, make them more credible and give them the perspective and depth that will make them exceptional. We all acknowledge the digital revolution that has changed the way we think about news and information. What has not changed is the need for journalists to deliver news that is accurate, and provides the necessary historical context and perspective. Of course, it is difficult to do this when you are tweeting or blogging, but for publications that purport to keep readers informed in a meaningful way, it is vital. And to differentiate your publication from services that deliver just the facts and give little analysis, it is essential to consult an archive.
News photographs illustrate history in important ways. Good photographs capture a mood or atmosphere that words struggle to express. News photographs visually document their subject matter, enabling the viewer to absorb instantly the fundamental nature of the event. Especially in this era, when information overload is so prevalent, a good image imprints itself on one’s mind and captures the moment indelibly.
Our news archives document events and opinions that inform the national dialogue – they serve as the long-term memory of our society and, as such, need to be accorded the respect and consideration they deserve.
This story was first published in the July 2012 issue of The Media magazine.