The value proposition of archives

I get depressed when I see anyone playing baseball. Why? Because that makes these words go through my head: "Hit dBall, run dBase."

Now, some old-timey, command-line geezer-techs might be chuckling at that. They probably understand that when I get to the " dBase" part I realize, again, that this former re-genner of Netware operating systems has forgotten more about digital technology than today's superfluously-certified DeVry "graduates" probably will ever know. That -- for varying reasons -- is what causes my shallow and short-lived depression.

One or more of those ostracized neurons fired earlier this week, allowing misplaced memories to bubble up into my cortex. I was cerebrally transported to somewhere in Idaho in the century before this one. Glenn Cruickshank was showing me how he had used btrieve to create PhotoView, perhaps the world's first, online, digital-image archive. Because I was there in a vendor capacity, helping to install a new editing-workflow system, I sensed scope creep (in order to integrate our workflow system with his archive). I resisted consideration of his archiving systems, because I suspected that it probably would lead to gilding the lily, where a vendor provides unspecified, unpaid-for development and support. But later that evening, while waiting for my first Scotch, I understood with terrifying clarity that Glenn was using market incentives to bring innovative concepts into reality. Dude was having some fun, too!

Back then I was traveling at least 30 weeks a year, normally spending four weeks at a time among dozens of U.S. newspapers. My pre-Scotch epiphany brought about a significant conversion (although Glenn doesn't know this). I felt the need to champion archive systems as another revenue stream for publishers. The looks I would get. Oh, man, the looks I would get! I'm not particularly fond of clichés, so I eschewed "deer in the headlights" for "stunned trout mode" (eyes unblinking, mouth open or moving without sound). As in: "He went into stunned trout mode when I told him that he needed a new dev null."

Since everyone today seems to be a content producer, the value of an archive is widely accepted. Back in my hot-lead days, we had many "File Photo" slugs at hand, ready to be inserted just below the wood block upon one side of which a zinc plate carried an etching of some local dignitary. File photos -- the archive -- were valuable to editors because they broke up the monotonous gray of text and allowed for more of the story to be jumped to inside pages where the reader would be exposed to additional advertising.

An archive system can be a big time-saver for content producers. But the value of an archive extends beyond ameliorating internal production. The archived content -- that information -- presents value for all kinds of researchers. I plodded through another decade of complex publishing systems before I saw an exemplary use of archived content. I probably shouldn't drop more names, so allow me to refer to it as a significant newspaper on Long Island. Now it wasn't actually archived content, but that's where we inserted the mechanism that helped this publisher to repurpose its content. The content was valuable, sure, but their commitment to the archive system is what enhanced its revenue-generating abilities, enabling continuing support of at least four, full-time archivists.

Now comes Google this week with its announcement that it will take its newspaper-archiving project no further. No explanations, but you know what? None are needed. And I don't think that any tsk-tsks are called for. I have only the slightest ideas why Google is dropping the project. You do, too, so I won't elaborate. But I do appreciate that Google tried. I want to imagine that the attempt has inspired a heaping handful of what we've known as newspapers.