Tuesday, May 11, 2021
May 11, 2021

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From the Newsroom: Access to our attic is limited

By , Columbian Editor

I got a call this week from a board member of the League of Women Voters. She’s working on a project about political candidates in the 1970s and wanted some information. I regretfully told her I didn’t think I could help. I wish I could, but this problem is going to be hard to solve.

I am talking about the archives. We sit on the best source of Clark County history from the last 130 years, but it’s difficult to tap.

First, a little background. We keep copies of what we publish, but the record, and access to the record, varies depending on the publication date.

The most comprehensive record is kept on microfilm. If you are of a certain age, like I am, you probably remember microfilm. For those who don’t, microfilm is a miniaturized reel of film of photographed documents – in this case, newspaper pages – that can be viewed one at a time with the aid of a large machine that contains a bright light and a magnifying lens. We have Columbian microfilm beginning with the Oct. 1, 1890 issue and continuing through Dec. 31, 2020 and counting. There might be some early issues missing, but it’s a collection that fills multiple file cabinets.

We also have a subset of printed newspapers. A vault in our main office contains bound copies of newspapers from most of the first half of the 20th century. The bound sets end before 1970, as I recall. And we have a small room called the morgue, where we keep the most recent year’s worth of print editions, which remain on sale to the public.

The common denominator to all of these archives is that the only way to search them is by date. If you know the date the Chkalov transpolar flight landed here (June 20, 1937), you can find the coverage. But if you are wondering what people said about the transpolar flight in the 1960s, you are in for a long and difficult search.

A better archive is our clip file. Housed in a bunch of ugly yellow file cabinets, this archive consists of newspaper clippings organized by subject and glued into notebooks. The notebooks are filed in alphabetical order, like “Vancouver City Council, 1971-1974.” You can cross-search by reporter byline and subject.

Some clippings are as old as the 1930s, but the early days are sparse. By the 1970s, though, The Columbian employed people full time to keep these notebooks up to date, and they were meticulously kept until we switched to an online archive in 1994.

Alongside the clipping file, we have a file of photographs, both local and wire service, and a whole bunch of press materials for TV shows. If we ever need an original publicity still from “Knight Rider,” I will bet it is in the archive. I thought it was odd we would have this collection until I remembered that newspapers used to publish weekly magazines containing TV listings. These lucrative little gems were supplanted long ago by your on-screen programming guide, but they used to be a major reason people bought the Sunday paper.

Our final archive is our online archive, which is hosted in a database called Merlin. Alas, Merlin is not the first database software The Columbian purchased, and I fear that some of our old stories were lost in transition between databases. At the very least, some of the stories from the late 1990s appear out of order in Merlin, which I find to be irritating.

I mentioned that there are some problems and unsolved issues with all of these archives. I think you can see from our fragmented system that making an easy, thorough archive search is probably our biggest problem.

I think our biggest unsolved issue is access. None of these archives are available to the public, with the exception of the year’s worth of back issues in the morgue. Our subscribers can get access to about a decade’s worth of stories by using the search function on our home page, www.columbian.com. The search function has been improved, but it remains clunky.

The last employee who was tagged with maintaining our paper archive retired more than a year ago now, and we don’t have anyone who is available to do an archive search, even if the customer is willing to pay. Because these archives are one of a kind, we can’t allow the public to comb through them without supervision. And paying a company to digitize more than 130 years of microfilm is cost prohibitive.

In other words, the work of the past will continue to be a problem in the future.