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Google steps up to preserve the nuances of American history

I used to write for newspapers. Which is a bit like saying I was a telegraph operator, in that both jobs carry a certain romanticism linked to their glory years and are widely considered irrelevant today.

As Nelson on The Simpsons once pointed out: “Ha ha. Your medium is dying.”

But as news gathering shifts to a more affordable, more equitable and more easily distributed medium, a part of me worries people don’t realize the value of newspapers – that is, the value of physical newspapers that have already been printed.

I recognize that a huge part of master data management is about knowing what not to keep. I also recognize the “Big Brother” fears that come with the Internet’s relentless cataloging of information.

But, anecdotally, this country is losing its history. Like I said, I’ve worked in newspapers. I can personally assure you that community papers – arguably the most important newspapers, historically speaking – are not properly cataloging and safeguarding their physical archives.

Once something is gone – it’s gone. Which says a lot about being sure your IT department has a comprehensive and clear data storage scheme.

So thank-freaking-God for Google on this one. In its quest to index all of the world’s information, the decade-old behemoth has started to scan and catalog newspaper archives.

Admittedly, newspapers, especially those written by 21-year-olds in small Vermont towns with little editor oversight (here’s looking at me) are often wrong or not completely informed. And much of the information becomes seemingly irrelevant by the next morning.

But you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, and you often don’t know what you need until you need it.

Imagine, for a moment, that your governor or potential vice president came up in a small town that largely escaped blog watchers and the city pages of the major metro papers. Wouldn’t it be great to have universal, uninterrupted access to the pages of the local weekly, allowing anyone in the world to dig into this person’s public history?

And, as The New York Times article points out, obituaries, birth announcements, wedding announcements and the like are invaluable when tracking family lineage – a tedious task under any circumstances.

Certainly, piecemeal cataloging is occurring. An otherwise dismissible trend story I once wrote about vandalism to city property has been sourced on the Wikipedia entry for “street sign theft,” for example.

But that’s just one story. I would be thrilled if I could use Google to access images of everything I’ve ever written. (Not everyone would be so excited — I covered crime and criminal courts and printed the names of alleged criminal offenders daily.)

Again, I know for a fact that some small newspapers in this country are one building fire away from losing their entire archive. Sure, most small papers have an extra set of microfilm stored away in a second location. Still … things go neglected and missing. That would be a travesty.

Google stands to make money here, of course, but our nation will benefit by having the folks in Mountain View contract to preserve our history free of charge.

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