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Paper Tells Tales of the Past, But What of the Digital Future?

June 29, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ Flimsy newspaper clippings, nearly crumbling, document history when it was fresh. Internal newsroom memos hint at larger tales, like one permitting reporters to use the term ``Ms.″ Worn notebooks evoke the wars they survived.

Nuances of the past surface by the thousands in the clippings and internal documents of The New York Times, some of which went on display last week to mark 100 years since Adolph S. Ochs bought the old, now-not-so-gray lady.

They share one trait: All are preserved on paper, long the medium of choice to tell humanity’s story.

But today’s archivists, operating in an epoch of CD-ROMs, online publishing and e-mail, wonder how the shift from the physical into the virtual will influence the archives of tomorrow.

``I’ve read the letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway. What are we going to have in the future? The e-mail of F. Scott Fitzgerald?″ asked Frank Romano, a professor of electronic publishing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Paper _ tangible, tactile paper in its dusty, brittle, workaday glory _ connects time and place not only because of the data it bears but because of the medium itself.

``People have a strong connection and reaction to paper. It’s something that is extremely common and everyday, and that makes it a real link to history,″ said Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, who supervises document conservation at the National Archives.

The exhibits, culled from the Times’ 127-year-old clipping ``morgue″ and its internal archives, would not have been possible without the rich paper trail that makes up the newspaper’s institutional memory.

``A newspaper is a cultural document beyond just the news in it,″ said Helga Borck, who is overseeing the transfer of a huge portion of the Times’ morgue to the library.

Much of what best summons the past is miscellany: the rubber-stamped date on one clip, ``DEC 21 1925″; the December 1941 memos from publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger asking his staff to heed President Roosevelt and ``be careful. Don’t spread gossip or rumor.″

A telex operator, receiving Attorney General John Mitchell’s letter asking the Times not to publish the Pentagon Papers, keyed in his reaction at the bottom: ``I am speechless.″ Nearby lie rumpled notebooks, likely bought in a Cambodian dimestore, in which reporter Sidney Schanberg scrawled observations as Phnom Penh fell.

The clippings themselves _ with headlines, typefaces and layouts unique to their eras _ also bring history alive.

``The morgue taught reporters. You took out a huge envelope, you spread it out. And you found things you didn’t know about,″ said A.M. Rosenthal, a Times op-ed columnist and the paper’s former executive editor.

``With paper you can delve into something,″ he said. ``A computer often only finds what you’re looking for.″

Paper is hardly in danger of extinction; books still sell briskly. What is fading, though, is a second tier _ the magazines that go online, the memos once filed away but now transmitted by often ephemeral electronic mail.

Temple University’s student newspaper is abandoning its printed edition for an online version. The New York Public Library uses old card-catalog drawers to hold gift-shop items _ its holdings are now listed online.

Tens of thousands of Americans file taxes and apply for college electronically. Software called ``Journalist″ takes information from CompuServe and creates a personalized on-screen ``newspaper.″ And copy centers now transfer paper documents inexpensively to CD-ROM.

But what’s really lost?

``In a database, there’s really no way to differentiate between `WORLD ENDS!′ and yesterday’s ball scores. The screen looks the same no matter what,″ said Linda Amster, the Times’ news research manager and keeper of its morgue for three decades.

``In the morgue, I open files and I wonder: `Who held this last?‴ she said. ``There’s just a thrill to holding a piece of something _ newspaper, any paper _ that hasn’t been touched for decades.″

``What we’re really talking about is an aesthetic experience of time,″ said Kristina Ross, an expert in both traditional and new media who operates a media history site on the World Wide Web.

``Ever look through the Nexis database?″ she said. ``It’s wonderful, but it’s just information, and much is left to the historical imagination. So the things that make paper documents ``pretty″ _ the graphics and so forth _ tend to be quite important, rather than superfluous, to their historical usefulness.″

The implications puzzle historians. What happens to rough drafts in an age when they’re overwritten each time a new version is saved in Microsoft Word? Will history’s annals be stored only on old diskettes that quickly changing technology can barely read?

Probably not. But the physical media on which humanity has expressed itself is undergoing radical change.

``Paper now is an auxiliary to electronics,″ said Richard F. Shepard, a retired Times reporter whose just-published book, ``The Paper’s Papers,″ tells the story of the Times’ archives. He wrote it on a Compaq Presario computer.

``This change, I don’t think it’s all good,″ Shepard said. ``But who am I to say? I’m 73 years old, and I’m at the mercy of a wall plug.″


``Headlines, Deadlines, Bylines: The New York Times Morgue, 1896-1996,″ at the New York Public Library, runs through Oct. 18, concurrent with Times exhibits at three other New York institutions.

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