“Free” digital historical archives are a wonderful byproduct of the digital age. The promise of the internet is that we can get seemingly infinite amounts of material that was previously accessible only through visiting an archive or, in some cases, getting a headache in front of a microfilm machine. (I, for one, don’t miss microfilm.) But unfortunately “free” isn’t necessarily the same thing as “without cost.” And the cost-incentive equation has now claimed another victim.
Google has played a vital role in sharing historical knowledge. The content they’ve made available the tools they’ve developed to make them accessible are truly impressive. The Google Scholar program to scan all the world’s books is controversial, but if the legal hurdles involving copyright and authorship can be sorted out it has potential to be a huge leap in the accessibility of the world’s collective historical knowledge.
Another Google program, equally ambitious, has involved scanning newspapers. They’ve made excellent progress since launching in 2008 and have scanned something like 2,000 newspapers’ holdings. You can access them at Google’s News Archives Search.
There are several things about the collection that are especially impressive. Firstly, it puts an emphasis on regional and smaller newspapers, including some foreign ones. Larger newspapers like the New York Times, Chicago Times, and Washington Post, have been snapped up into subscription services like Proquest Historical Newspapers. But what if you want to read how the Kennedy assassination inquiry was reported in Cape Girardeau in Southeast Missouri? Or how the arrest of Rosa Parks was reported in Lumberton, North Carolina? One of the strengths of Google’s newspaper scanning effort has been to make many newspapers you never knew existed accessible for historical research.
But Google has now announced that it will be halting development and growth of the collection. They’re not shuttering the service–at least for the moment–but won’t be adding new features or adding content.1
Google, of course, is well within its rights to do this. They were under no obligation to do it in the first place. But it’s a shame. The collection was already very useful–and I’ve found it very useful in my own work–and it had enormous potential. But unfortunately it’s just one of the risks involved in such ventures by for-profit entities.
The problem, of course, is that the collection was free for the user but most certainly not free for Google to produce, develop, and host. Who knows how much it has actually cost Google–undoubtedly an awful lot. But Google has made a business decision, after weighing a mix of costs and priorities, that the costs outweigh the incentives to continue development.