And I really liked Randy. Still do.
|A microfilm cassette|
Because when Randy, the then-publisher and editor of the Standard-Examiner, decided, in the mid-1980s, to do away with the company's "antiquated" clip file system of old news stories, he unwittingly condemned several decades of my town's news history to death.
Or, to be more accurate, inaccessibility, which may be worse.
I mean, the stories are sitting right there, in glittering black and white. On 16mm microfilm, in a special weird square proprietary cassette nobody else makes, the special reader for which is probably gracing the shelf of some thrift store, somewhere. Maybe. Landfill, more likely.
|We've got scores of these things|
Which sucks. The microfilm was used from the mid-1980s until the early 2000s, when a computer database was created. About three years ago the S-E changed computers databases again, tried to migrate the archive, failed, so that disappeared as well. Reporters I talk to, now, grumble a lot about this, but the computer gods are evil and implacable gods, and here we are. I suppose someone can scan the film in, and make it searchable, but that takes money and who has that?
Meanwhile, that old system lives on. Good as ever.
At this point, may I say: God Bless Donna Bingham.
Donna was the S-E's librarian from about 1945 until 2000 when she retired. Every day on the job Donna would take half a dozen copies of the days paper, carefully snip out each of the local stories (being careful to match jumps), as well as any national stories with local import, and stick them all in equally carefully indexed file folders, stamping each story with that day's date.
She was building what newspaper folk used to fondly called the morgue. Thousands of dead stories,
|A photo of Donna in the 1950s.|
Stories about what? Everything that was in the paper, which means everything. Crime, illness, politics, businesses, the odd and the mundane. Over the years, Donna filed away hundreds of thousands of stories about thousands of subjects in a LOT of file folders.
I did some back-of-the-napkin math today. One banker's box of those file folders contains, roughly 175 file folders.
Just the news stories from 1933, when the S-E apparently started collecting these files, until 1980, fill 36 banker's storage boxes. That means 6,300 file folders. If you guess each one contains 40 clipped stories, that's a quarter million stories, each one clipped, read, dated, indexed and attached to a little paper glued tab.
She knew those files, too. If you asked for one she'd get a thoughtful look, go dig, and produce it. It might take her five minutes, it might take her two days, but she'd find it.
Time marches on. While I worked at the paper the management decided, first, to do away with Donna's tedious clip work and replace it, instead, with a slick new microfilm system keyed to a computer. This was in the 1980s when computers were hot stuff, the wave of the future.
The pages of the newspaper were filmed, then Donna and a helper would go through the film and type the story information into a computer file, which created a database of index numbers. Clap the film cassette into a special reader, type in the index
number, push the button, and your story magically appeared on the screen.
Very slick, for the 1980s. Donna's clip files, filling huge racks, were pushed aside. As the years passed, they fell into disuse. When the newspaper moved to BDO they were boxed up haphazardly, re-racked haphazardly, re-boxed haphazardly and finally stored in a dungeon-like room.
You know, of course, what happened to the 1980s computers and their software. As I said above, the indexes were migrated, but that only goes so far. Did anyone have time to re-enter all the data to new software?
Of course not. The reader for all that microfilm got old, then got replaced with something simpler that needed an adaptor, and God only knows where even that is now.
The S-E is hardly alone. NASA has had to dig through junk yards for machines that can read stored magnetic tape from early Voyager satellites. Even original tapes of moon landings are hard to read.
Time marches on, as they say, but those clip files Donna created had one good quality: They didn't go away. As any museum curator will tell you, paper lasts. Good paper lasts longer, and these are just newsprint, but they were still there, still readable. Whenever a new editor or publisher came to the S-E I'd be first in line at the reception, talking about those files' value for research, their place in history.
I also talked with Sarah Singh, curator of the Weber State University Special Collections, who started talking to S-E executives about donating those files, now moldering away, to WSU.
It took a bunch of time -- corporations never move quickly -- but last December the S-E finally found a way to donate all the files, now stored safely in WSU's archive.
Sarah took everything: clip files, negative files, picture files. All of it.
The clip files start about 1933 and go until about 1987. This is treasure beyond worth, but of course there are problems. As I said above, the files were moved several times, boxed and unboxed, then boxed again, by people who didn't pay close attention to the alphabet. Sometimes if feels as if the files have been shuffled, no rhyme or reason.
So the first job is just to get them in order, but this, in a way, is fun. I'm spending a day a week just sorting the boxes, then sorting the files, getting them in order again so researches can access Donna's handiwork. Donna's system was simple -- pre-1980, then post-1980, and there was some overlap during the microfilm period.
Why do these files matter, when it is possible to create a computer database? After all, some sites -- the Utah Digital Newspapers site run by the University of Utah is one -- scan whole pages and make them word-searchable. Who needs paper files?
Because it costs a lot of money to create that database. Plus, when you search that database for, let's say, Ogden Mayor Harm Peery, you will get a whole list of links to the stories. Each link must be clicked on, loaded, then looked at to see if it is the item you want.
Over. And over. And over. From 1933 until he died in the early 1960s, The S-E ran more than 900 stories on Ogden's cowboy mayor. Yes, I counted them.
That's a lot of clicking, and reading, and saying "no, not that one," and doing it again.
Or you can open one of Donna's folders on Harm, of which there are about 15. You can scan dozens of headlines at once.
And you have dozens of subject headings in front of you at once. If you can't find the one you want, you find one you like.
Today I was working on the "T" section and found "Tabernacle," which covers the LDS Church's
tabernacle in Ogden.
Stories I had never seen before included four about the history, and demolition, of the "Pioneer" tabernacle, built in the 19th Century and torn down in 1971. Interestingly, in May of that year, the S-E ran a story about the building's history and construction. Then, in September, are three images showing its demolition.
Sad, but that's history in Ogden, and it's all preserved in rows and rows of boxes containing rows and rows of musty news clips.
Thank you, Donna. And thank you Randy, and your successors, for at least having the good sense to preserve these. In an era when other papers are dumping their legacies in the shredder, that was a gift worth noting.
For me, it means hours buried in many, many stories of Ogden's past, all of them fascinating, if disorganized. But that will take only time to repair.
I like to think of it as job security. Plus plenty of material for this blog, eh?