Publication Date

April 17, 2009



The digital archive called “Paper of Record”—a significant repository of old newspapers from around the world—disappeared in late January, leaving many historians without a critical tool for their research.

“The site was simply essential for historians working on the history of Mexico,” according to Richard Salvucci, an economic historian at Trinity University. “We finally had a systematic way of getting at those sources, and now suddenly they are gone.” According to Salvucci, the site provided both scanned copies of historical papers from Mexico and a search engine that allowed historians to keyword search their contents.

The content in the Paper of Record web site was purchased for the Google News Archive search, but, some of the materials could not be posted due to scan quality and permissions issues. A Google employee, responding to questions at the Google News forum, reported that “We’re currently working on the most effective way to search and browse this valuable content. We’re doing our best to find a solution to include as much of the acquired content as possible. While a lot of this content has been made available through Archive search, we’re still refining processes to include incompatible newspaper images in our index. We’re also working with certain publishers to acquire the rights to display their content.”

In light of the complaints of historians and others, Bob Huggins, the founder of Paper of Record, asked Google staff to allow him to “re-start” and received permission to do so. But he reported on the News forum that they will only be able to make it available through “academic portals,” which means researcher will only be able to access the materials “by going to universities, colleges and libraries who subscribe.”

Staff at Google and Huggins did not respond to e-mail requests for comment about the status of the missing materials and when and where they might become available in time for publication. But Dan Clancy, an engineer with Google’s News Archive project, told the National Post: “Of course some people will be disadvantaged in the interim, but we hope that, in the long term everyone will benefit. That’s why we’re doing a detailed analysis on the availability and searchability of content and reaching out to more people.”

In the meantime, Salvucci reported that the work of some historians, who were relying heavily on the database, “has come to a halt. That is what is at stake here.”

Regrettably, this proves yet again Roy Rosenzweig’s warning to the profession six years ago about the “the fragility of evidence in the digital era.” While it may be beyond our capacity to adjust copyright laws and the behavior of large corporations (however well meaning), as a profession we can and perhaps should develop new habits for working with digital materials—by copying down information when we see it online, and not becoming overly dependent on any one data source or having illusions about its permanence.

Update (4/16/09 11:15 pm): According to Bob Huggins from Paper of Record, the revived resource will include all of the content that was taken down, and will be available to “Academic libraries, associations, SABR etc—no personal subscriptions.” He stated that the content will be available “[h]opefully next week.”

Update (4/21/09): At a meeting this morning, Dan Clancy from Google said they now have a complete list of all the newspapers received from Paper of Record, and they hope to publish information about their future status by mid-May.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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