Jim Steranko Escapes; Google News Archives Disappear
"The artist’s name was Jim Steranko, and he was the twenty-seven-year-old art director at a Shillington, Pennsylvania, ad agency. If there weren’t a trail of newspaper clippings to confirm it, one would never believe what Steranko had packed into his early years. […] By the age of sixteen, [Steranko] was putting on Houdini-like public performances, showing off to local police that he could escape from their jails. He also slipped out of straitjackets, leg irons, handcuffs, safes, and vaults. Other performances were less thrilling to the local authorities: The teenaged Steranko began stealing an arsenal’s worth of guns and a small parking lot’s worth of motor vehicles. In February 1956, Steranko and a partner were arrested for the thefts, committed throughout eastern Pennsylvania, of twenty-five cars and two trucks."
—from Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
Like a lot of researchers, I’ve depended heavily on the Google News Archives; I otherwise might never have found the “Admit Stealing Cars in State” story in the February 7, 1956 issue of the Gettysburg Times—and that’s just one of many, many examples I could point to where previously buried history could be turned up with a little creative searching. One reason that the ambitious and well-funded Google News Archive and Google Books are so important is that over the course of the last decade, they started to become the only game in town.
Google News Archives began work in 2004, and launched in 2006. Many libraries and other cultural institutions (as well as newspaper and magazine publishers, and even other commercial archive projects) put their faith in the idea that their partnerships with Google (which had the capital to finance massive digitization campaigns) would provide the public with ongoing access to their archives. Much microfilm and paper was discarded.
In 2011, though, Google suddenly announced that it had decided to stop scanning old newspapers and digitizing microfiche. Whatever the reason—whether it was to allocate more money to improving the Android, or pumping up R&D for Google Maps—there’s probably no recourse, no way to hold the company accountable for not operating like a public works program. Google is a corporation, accountable to shareholders, not the citizenry. The mistake was to expect otherwise.
Unfortunately, by 2011, not a lot of newspapers and magazines were in a position to finish the project. But at least there were the remnants of the archives…until recently. First the Google News Archives home page vanished, and then indexed searching capabilities disappeared. Then, last week, to almost zero fanfare, a Google News employee wrote the following: “We are performing a much needed facelift on our News Archive search function as we swap out an old system for an improved one. We are focusing engineering resources on building this new system, and as a result, for the next several months users will only be able to access archived stories through Google Search.” Now, even Google’s own instructions lead to a dead end.
I’ve been watching with interest as the Digital Public Library of America—a nonprofit—has gotten off the ground. If you’re looking for a tax write-off before the end of the year, or you just care about history and heritage, consider sending them a check. Meanwhile, although even the vestiges of the Google News Archives are increasingly hard to navigate, they’re still out there, if you search hard enough. For how long, who can say?