I've written extensively about my love for Google's newspaper archives. You can peruse my old posts and see how many stories were inspired by browsing through old articles. It's an invaluable research tool, putting well over a century's worth of history at our fingers.
And now, it's gone. At least where Milwaukee is concerned.
As chronicled by Michail Takach at Urban Milwaukee, the paper's parent company has had its entire archive pulled down.
“Have you ever borrowed a book, thousands of miles away?” asked those visionary AT&T ads of the 1990s. “Have you ever learned special things, from far away places? You will.”This is sobering development for all of us. It will severely hurt my own research, as it will anyone who loves Milwaukee and her history.
In 1993, this was mind-blowing science fiction. By 2008, we were already there. Google News Archive launched that year with ambitious plans to scan, archive and release the world’s newspapers in a single public access database. Anyone, anywhere, would now be able to read any edition of any newspaper ever printed. It was the closest thing to time travel in human history. Historians, librarians and educators rejoiced: the future was now!
When the project abruptly ended three years later, the project had scanned over a million pages of news from over 2,000 newspapers. Although nobody is entirely sure why the project ended, Google News Archive delivered an incredible gift to Milwaukee: free digital access to more than a century’s worth of local newspapers.
This wasn’t just a revelation; it was a revolution. Aligning perfectly with the rise of social media, Google News Archive content inspired Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, Pinterest boards, and more. By removing barriers to historical content, Google didn’t just trigger a passing interest in local history. Google triggered a groundswell of historical discovery, engagement and pride.
That was then. This is now: on Tuesday, August 16, the Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee Sentinel, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel listings vanished from the Google News Archive home page. This change came without any advance warning and still has no official explanation.
As a researcher and author, I relied heavily on Google News Archive to uncover the hidden history of LGBTQ Milwaukee for my recent book on that subject. For years, I’ve bookmarked thousands of articles and images for further exploration at a later date. In one lightning bolt moment, all of my Google News Archive bookmarks went from treasure to trash. There will be no later date. There will be no further exploration.
Google’s response to inquiries was chilling: “Google News Archive no longer has permission to display this content.” The response from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel employee was even more chilling: “We have contracted with a new vendor (Newsbank.) It is unclear when or if the public will have access to the full inventory that was formerly available on Google News Archive.”
That’s right. If.
Google spent considerable time and money to digitize our history as a cultural contribution. As a for-profit company, Newsbank will essentially privatize these public resources through a paid subscription service. Unfortunately, our community champions for historical preservation – libraries, universities, museums, historical societies – are unlikely to pay the steep ransom price that would restore free public access. Will anyone?
Until someone pays up, local history might just be held hostage.
I'm interested to see what Newsbank has in mind for the archives, and sick at heart thinking how many stories may be lost because of a desire to lock those pages away.