Guest Column: Newspaper archives would be morgues if news would die

12 Sep,2013

By Anita Pujari


It was my first day at work at the nation’s biggest newspaper house. I could hardly suppress my eagerness to see the famed old lady who had set sail in 1838 and had meandered into homes and lives across the country like no one else had. I expected to find the historic first issue befittingly holding pride of place in the Archives, probably in a temperature-controlled vault, safe and secure from man and nature.


I was stunned to find that no one knew where it was and no one particularly cared. It was going to be six months of playing Sherlock before I prised out from beneath mounds of newspaper bound volumes, this solid paper box, boxes in fact with those priceless original copies of what everyone knows as The Times of India the name which came about much later in 1861. At birth on November 3, 1838 the name was The Bombay Times & Journal of Commerce. The bi-weekly at Rs 30 per year turned daily in 1850. The history of the newspaper is what legends are made of and one could safely say that ensconced in the pages of this longest running chronicle lies the history of India.


Did I say history of India? I’ll add a rider – not chronicled always as it really happened. I will never forget the week spent going through the TOI of April 14, 1919 to a few days beyond. The issues had been preserved on microfilm and it was easy to roll from page to page, enlarging the tiny text and looking for Jalianwalla Bagh massacre (April 13, 1919) for a visiting researcher who had not found it. How could there be no coverage of the incident? We found it eventually – less than 100 words, lost amongst the other national news, saying there had been an incident of rioting in a public garden in Amritsar (!).


In talking about newspaper libraries, one often comes up against the metaphor of the “newspaper morgue.”  I have often wondered on this choice of word and who or what led to its global usage. Was it apathy or lack of vision or perhaps both? As I see it, newspaper archives must have existed since the newspaper itself. Unless an effort was made to save a copy and put it into safe custody (the erstwhile morgue), the day’s edition would have been truly a ‘has been’ like its ephemeral nature.  This effort by publishing houses the world over to build and maintain an archive of what is said to be “a chronicle of the times we live in” has ensured that the history and socio-political-economic development of people, thoughts, events, and nations did not get lost. This primary information rarely if ever gets into books that one could easily buy or borrow. If not collated and preserved, the news happenings around the world would be lost for good.


Several nations have their National Library as the depository (compulsory deposit of every issue of newspaper, book published) and the archive (ensuring preservation and access) of what is considered the nation’s heritage. Where nations failed, newspaper publishers have stepped in to preserve and share their news archives. The British Library’s newspaper collection comprises 52,000 titles from all over the world, dating back to the 16th century and is housed on nearly 50,000 km of shelving.  The National Library of Australia has a collaborative programme named Australian Newspapers Digitization Program (ANDP) digitising historic Australian newspapers published between 1803 and 1954 and making them available online. It uses Web 2.0 technology and is truly innovative and unique as it allows users to interact, contribute and add value to the newspaper content – tag, add comments and correct the electronic translated text


Storage and access of newspaper archives has been a problem with every collection which was partly addressed by preserving on microfilm – high on long term integrity but low on search and retrieval, and in recent times as Digital Archives – high on ease of retrieval and dissemination but plagued with technology obsolescence issues. A mix is ideal if you have the budget.


Having handled print, microfilm and digital archives, I can say that news research is medium-agnostic and has much to do with the archivist’s research skills and passion to find answers. Every newspaper house that has a Library/Archive would have a recollection of a person/s who made that difference and added that value to the business of newspaper production. Mr Roy of Anand Bazaar Patrika, Ram Kolhatkar of The Times of India archives, and many others that scribes would remember.


News clippings, the most important source of reference and research in a news library at one time has been replaced now by Digital Archives, but the key to search and retrieval is still the indexing or in digital parlance – metadata. Else it will be as exhausting as Google. I often joke with my editorial colleagues that Google is not just exhaustive but exhausting – whether you admit it or not you rarely go beyond five pages of results and that’s when you are the diligent kind. What gets served therein rarely gets checked on authenticity let alone authoritativeness. How many bother about corroboration. Wikipedia has become the first and last stop for research, oblivious to its basic tenet of freely editable information. This makes it all the more critical for a newspaper house to develop and maintain its own authoritative and wholesome Archive and professional researchers.


A newspaper archive is an important repository of the history of the paper’s interaction with its community. It is also a reflection of the changing mores of the community and society as a whole. I have seen research studies on umpteen anthropological issues get addressed from the archives of newspapers. Say the matrimonial columns over the decades – terrific insights on values, religion-caste, education, aspirations. Interesting study when ads by parents started getting replaced by ads by the groom/bride and how tone and tenor of expectations changed.


Advertisements – the ever-changing creative sphere of communication between seller and buyer. Tracing back advertisements by say HLL, LIC, the colas or film releases through newspaper archives is like looking into a treasure trove and coming up trumps. You would be surprised to know that in the newspapers of yore, the front page was fully advertisements. Anything from a hat to a horse carriage found ad space. The creatives make for delightful reading of commerce in the 1800s and 1900s.


I remember a particularly impressive exhibition held by the Delhi Public Library to celebrate their 60th anniversary in 2010. They called it – The Newseum – a unique display of their newspaper archives, presenting a visual history of Hindi & English newspaper advertisements since 1951 as well as memorable photographs, cartoons, articles giving a telling insight on those decades.


At a conference held in February 2013 by the Association of Media Libraries and Archives (AMLA), a young research student of JNU Library shared his work on creating an Archive of Indian Newspaper Cartoons as a resource-base for socio-political economic research.


So are archives and archivists important in the media industry? Yes, of course, and more so in the days of unauthenticated internet content and with the advent of a Digital Archives Management System (DAMS). Add to that the instantaneous needs of 24×7 news delivery and new media. Morgue? It is time for a new metaphor, perhaps.


Anita Pujari was until recently Vice-President, Research Archives & Syndication at DNA and Head- Archives and Syndication of the Zee News cluster. She was head of the archives at The Times of India group


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