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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Cultivating serendipity: A visit to the New York Times ‘morgue’

“This is it,” Jeff Roth said as he flung open the door.

Three levels below ground, in a nondescript building beside The New York Times’s headquarters — and hardly a stone’s throw from Times Square, one of the most frenetic intersections on the planet — lies an unexpected and strangely quiet repository.

Quiet, that is, aside from the periodic rumble of the No. 7 subway line.

Mr. Roth is the caretaker of The Times’s “morgue,” a vast and eclectic archive that houses the paper’s historical news clippings and photographic prints, along with its large book and periodicals library, microfilm records and other archival material — federal directories, magazine collections and a variety of indexes.

Almost everything is stored in ageless steel filing cabinets — several thousand drawers’ worth — and in sturdy cardboard bankers boxes. An assortment of bookshelves lines some of the walls.

“They don’t make filing cabinets like this anymore,” Mr. Roth said, tapping one as he passed it. “Heck, they don’t even make steel like this anymore.”

The truth is, they don’t make archives like this anymore, either.

The numbers alone are staggering: Five million to seven million photographic prints are stored here, along with tens of millions of clippings. (The Times’s collection of about 10 million photographic negatives is housed elsewhere, some in the newsroom and some in a separate underground library.)

And if the scale of the archives is dizzying, so, too, is its seemingly ad hoc arrangement.

But there is a method to the madness — “as long as you know the alphabet,” Mr. Roth said. “And can count.”

Jeff Roth, the last remaining clip filer in The New York Times’s “morgue.”

The main organizing principle? Two separate card catalogs, one for the clippings, and one for the picture library.

“You have to understand,” he said, explaining the separate catalogs: “Historically, the morgue and picture library were two very different animals.”

The Times’s clippings collection dates to the 1870s, when newspaper articles were individually cut out and stored in small packets that corresponded to the many names and subjects described in a given article. (At one point, 36 copies of The Times, along with 28 other publications, were set aside each day to be cut and filed away.) The collection was formally codified into a clippings library in 1907, under the direction of Carr Van Anda, then the paper’s managing editor. That clippings library made up the original morgue.

The photos in the picture library, which dates to around 1905, were managed separately from the news clippings — by the art department. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the two collections merged.

Think of the clippings library as a precursor to a subject-based web search. Times journalists delving into a particular topic — the Second Avenue subway, say — would dip into various clippings packets related to transportation in New York, hoping to supplement their stories with historical context and color.

Thumbing through a drawer of clipping packets can engender a sense of historical whiplash; a packet labeled “BOMBINGS, NYC” sits almost adjacent to one labeled “BOOTBLACKS,” for example. Withdrawing the latter and emptying its contents yields a bundle of yellowed and brittle newspaper articles, each one neatly trimmed at the margins and labeled with notes and filing markings. (“Bootblack Sees Circus / On McReynolds Dollar,” reads one headline. “SHINE, MISTER?” reads another.)

There’s an inescapable sense of serendipity to wandering through the morgue, a sensation that in many ways would be impossible to replicate with a modern-day, digitized archive.

Not that a digital version of The Times’s morgue is likely, or even possible. Of the millions of photographs in the picture library, Mr. Roth estimates that only 1 or 2 percent have been scanned. And the clippings are too fragile, and far too numerous, to be subjected to a scanning bed.

Mr. Roth, who began working at The Times in 1993, was once part of a much larger team of filers. “There were 20 guys down here when I started,” he said. “Now I’m the last one.”

His job consists of a range of tasks: chasing down clippings and picture folders for researchers and reporters — including photo editors and obituary writers — who are hunting down historical information; scanning relevant pictures; keeping an eye out for archival material that may aid or interest his colleagues; and cataloging and organizing the collections.

He also spends his time trying to refile everything he’s pulled — although, he said, “I’m about 10 years behind in my refiling.”

But in spite of the never-ending nature of the place (there is more here than any single person could ever look at or read, let alone catalog and organize), Mr. Roth is still spurred on by the thrill of discovery.

“You’re always learning something down here,” he said. “Sometimes just by osmosis.”

(Source: NYT)

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