Microfiche, or microfilm, reels from the New York Times, 1973

Retro research: Squinting, scanning, scrolling

I spent a few afternoons at the Toronto Reference Library recently, scouring the January 1977 issues of the New York Times on microfilm and emerged with that satisfying sense of accomplishment that seems so elusive when working online. While I was busy squinting away at the screen, somewhere out in the modern world the publisher was announcing that, sooner rather than later, the Times will cease print publication.

I didn’t find the article I was looking for (about a family friend who was written up in the paper as a Soviet refusenik), but instead, I bring you some scattered thoughts and images from an afternoon gone retro.

  • I’d forgotten about what does not show up in an archive search. How many articles fall by the wayside, lost to inaccurate keywords and the shifts of language over time. You forget how the sound of words and the turns of phrase, have changed until it’s laid out across a sheet of newsprint.
Headlines from 1970s New York Times on microfilm
  • Some headlines are surprisingly familiar—hand-wringing over teens or Hollywood’s penchant for remakes, swine flu and unpaid work, and the state of the media.
  • Internet archives tend to flatten out differences over time. An article published in 1977 looks much the same as one published in 2007, when viewed on my computer screen.
  • What was the world scared of as 1977 began? Scan the headlines until a story begins to emerge. This particular one, in January 1977, is framed by words like Communist, and Red, and Soviet, and Leftist. An inauguration, from Ford to Carter. There is a Women’s Movement, too. The early days of the Iranian revolution flash by. Indira Ghandi, or Mrs. Ghandi, appears frequently, as does Spain. Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism and Islam, those are all words of the future, unimaginable to news readers and writers alike. I find myself wishing I could send a dispatch, or headline, from the future, to let them know how it all turns out.
Women's World - more headlines from 1970s New York Times on microfilm
  • Hyperlinks are distracting, but paper is even more so. You can’t meander when you search for a specific result on google. But on the way from A1 to A10 are so many other things to discover. The newspaper feels like it contains an entire world, writ anew each and every single day. The internet does too, but its efforts to bring me ever closer to my niche of interests seems organized to steer me away from the messiness of flipping pages and accidental discoveries.
Abortion petition from 1970s New York Times on microfiche
Glamour magazine ad from 1970s New York Times on microfilm
  • On microfilm: Microfilm as we know it seems to have emerged as the technology of choice for preserving newspapers in the 1930s. The box holding my film canister was processed by the TRL on June 7, 1980. How many hands has it gone through? I find myself wondering too, how many copies of each film was made—how many microfiche rolls exist for the New York Times? What poor employee’s task was that? I am surprised too, at how busy the newspaper room, and the microfiche area especially, seems to be.

2 thoughts on “Retro research: Squinting, scanning, scrolling”

  1. Lea, I’m currently on the 4th floor of the Reference Library, connected to the library’s WiFi and reading your blog post about researching news articles on microfiche at said library, and now posting a comment about posting this comment. If that’s not a timeline-crushing example of meta-journalism, I don’t know what is …

    [universe implodes]

  2. At least you weren’t downstairs in the newspaper room. Then we could have had a meta-implosion to go with the meta-journalism.

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