In this issue of Focus we publish a summary of the International Coalition on Newspapers (ICON) survey of international newspaper collections in North American academic and research libraries. The survey’s findings are alarming, but not surprising. For some time we have been hearing from scholars about the difficulties they are experiencing in obtaining back issues of newspapers, particularly foreign language newspapers.
The ICON survey confirms the anecdotal evidence: news from sources in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and other regions of the world is no longer being adequately archived. Most scholars and libraries rely heavily upon a few large institutions to preserve international newspapers. Those “libraries of record” are facing the same budgetary constraints as other libraries, and have had to curtail their acquisition, cataloging, and preservation activities. Under these conditions foreign materials, especially materials in non-European languages, are the first to be cut. Things are no better in the digital realm, for other reasons.
In the Mellon-funded Political Communications Web Archive Project (see Political Web), undertaken by the Center and several university partners, we are learning that many important digital “primary source” materials – statements by political candidates, proclamations by partisan groups, and information disseminated by NGOs, and more -- are vanishing irretrievably from the Web each day. One of the Center’s partners, the University of Texas Latin American Network Information Center (LANIC), determined that fewer than half of 226 political election sites from countries like Venezuela, Guatemala, Peru, and Colombia were still on the Web after five years; in some countries, such as El Salvador, many sites vanished in less than a year.
The “publishers” of these materials, the activist groups, parties, and even governments that create the sites, have no vested interest in maintaining them beyond their politically useful lives. And very few of these kinds of sites are being preserved through the major extant Web archiving efforts undertaken by the Internet Archive, the Library of Congress, and others. Hence, important knowledge is disappearing, and important points of view on local and international events are being lost. It is incumbent upon libraries to arrest this trend. With fewer actors and resources in this arena, cooperative action is necessary.
Through the International Coalition on Newspapers, Foreign Newspaper Microfilming Program, and Area Microfilming Programs (AMPs) the Center for Research Libraries and its partner institutions identify, preserve, and make available to North American scholars critical materials from all parts of the world. In the months ahead we will seek ways to strengthen these programs and bring new resources to bear on them. Success will depend on developing partnerships with organizations from all sectors of the library world, with public, academic, and independent research libraries. It will also require the help of commercial publishers, like ProQuest, Lexis-Nexis, Thomson-Gale, and others. Such organizations can bring important capabilities to bear on, and in fact are already invested in, the effort to ensure long-term availability of important scholarly resources. The challenge of preserving these critical but ephemeral materials is daunting. But the challenge must be surmounted for North American universities to maintain the depth and diversity of source materials upon which the creation of new knowledge depends.