The morgue I loved to visit

After college, I had a temporary job as a reporter at the Bridgewater (NJ) Courier-News. It was called a postgraduate internship, which loosely translated as: “We can’t hire any full-timers, but we could use the help for a few months.”

It was mainly fun. Sure, I often had to poke myself awake at municipal meetings, but I also got to cover Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.

And by far, the coolest perk of the job was the morgue.

“Morgue” is newspaper slang for the files of old clippings and photos. Before digitalization, this meant a roomful of overflowing file cabinets. It varied as to how well the morgue was organized, or if it existed at all. There might be an actual archivist on hand, but at small papers, there might simply be a copy editor who got sick of never being able to find reference material, so the morgue was a labor of love.

Pawnbrokers' sales, obits -- the morgue had it all.

I lived for clip file research. Heck, I sometimes made up reasons to check the clips. (I really should have heeded this inner voice and chucked journalism in favor of a career in archiving.)

But today, newspapers are in shrink mode. Papers are closing. Or, like my former employer, they’re moving to smaller, cheaper quarters, with limited space for clip files.

This article, while bringing back memories, is a reminder that in many towns, the priceless resource that is a newspaper archive might be at risk. Fortunately the Courier-News management has donated its holdings to local libraries and historical societies.

But will everybody? What will happen to all that history? Speaking to a Syracuse, NY reporter, author and former newspaper guy Pete Hamill expressed the unique character of the morgues: “They tell you all the detail that historians don’t. How much was a pair of shoes. What did a guy pay to go to the ballpark in 1934 during the Depression. How many people were there.”

Interestingly, at least one business out there has sensed a commercial boon in old newspaper clippings.  A few months back, Kevin Roderick at LA Observed reported on Time Capsule Press, whose owners plan to partner with newspaper managements to package material from their morgues into books. Their debut is a history of the Los Angeles Lakers drawn from the files of the Los Angeles Times.

It’s a definite bright spot of potential for a historical resource that can’t be allowed to disappear.

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