A Premature Eulogy To Microfilm

I hear the Tennessee Digital Newspaper Project is rolling out its project to digitize many of the state's important newspapers in such a way that we can access them, and even look up things by key word, from our computers at home. About 15 years of the Memphis Daily Appeal, encompassing the Civil War era, are already available to browse. In the near future, Parson Brownlow's Knoxville Whig will be available to read online.

It's an ambitious project—though it's surprising that some people who call me with questions assume it was already done years ago. They think they can already peruse old papers naked, from the comfort of their breakfast nook.

As it is, no, the Knoxville newspapers since the Gazette in 1791 are mostly accessed the same way they were 40 years ago. You have to come, physically and fully clothed, to one of the two downtown libraries, pull open a steel drawer and find the box of microfilm you need, thread the film onto a spool, and crank. Cranking's not for sissies. To do it expeditiously, you need a first baseman's right arm. And at the end of the day, maybe some Ben Gay.

As well as some patience. Despite a few spotty and earnest efforts that are occasionally useful when you're lucky, they're not indexed. You need to know what you're looking for, in terms of a precise date, to begin with. You need either that, or lots of time to kill.

Me, I'm still surprised at what's on microfilm. Putting it all down, by way of finding tens of thousands of crumbling newspapers, and then taking photographs of each one, and shrinking them, took more than a couple of weekends. Just for the city of Knoxville, I figure, there must be more than one million newspaper pages since 1791, and somebody went to the trouble of taking a picture of almost every one.

The format, the technology, is about 75 years old, and the hand-crank machines you read microfilm on look like old Plymouth Belvederes. Still, I've never gotten to the point of comprehending it: how months of wisdom and idiocy, heartache and drollery—and sports—can exist in a medium as light as a Styrofoam cup. Computers can compress things much smaller still, of course. But I've found it's easier to impress a kid with a roll of microfilm than with a website. Kids come to understand, early on, that computers are some incomprehensible magic, like TV. But microfilm is still, barely, within mortal comprehension, and when you show them how small it makes a book or a months's worth of newspapers, kids will still say "Whoa!"

Microfilm changed the way we look at history. Looking back, you notice one thing over and over: that being closer to the historical event doesn't help you know more about it. We know a lot more about our distant ancestors than our recent ancestors did. When I researched my Market Square book, I was struck with the fact that in the 1950s, when the city was considering proposals for redevelopment, the learned mayor and venerable newspapers columnists all contented themselves with wild guesses about its history. They weren't dumb; they really just didn't have any way to look it up. To Knoxvillians of the past, Knoxville's deeper past was mysterious. Old newspapers were scattered here and there in basements and attics. They were fragile, and they smelled bad and made you sneeze.

Putting all these acres of crumbling newspapers in some semblance of order on rolls of microfilm is pretty wonderful. If anyone's around who was involved in that project, thanks. I'm still amazed.

All those things may change in our lifetime, if not this year or this decade. I've done just a little bit to speed it along; when I heard they were going to give all 20 years of Metro Pulse history the digital treatment, I helped locate a few obscure issues to make it complete.

It'll be easier, and people may be less prone to willful reinventions of history, when they can read contemporary newspaper accounts, and speeches—by Unionists or Secessionists, say—who have been warped by generations of grandfathers retelling the stories. Still, we're losing something, too. I might feel different if I didn't work downtown, in an office directly across the street from the History Center—but I enjoy history as a physical exercise. For a middle-aged guy with no health-club membership, I'm fairly fit, and I have historical research to thank.

If I'm on deadline and need to look something up, I know I'll have to run down the steps and dash across Gay Street afoot, either across the street to the McClung Collection or round the corner and up two flights of stairs to the microfilm room at Lawson McGhee. My heart's pumping when I get there, and ideas are flowing through my capillaries.

And therein is my main beef with the 21st century. The intention of much of our technological innovation seems to be to encourage us to remain seated. The Internet does give us more time to work on our adipose collections and artery-hardening projects. Some scientists present one study after another indicating the importance of exercise to not only physical health, but mental stimulation and learning; other scientists get up every morning determined to find new ways for us to get everything we need without budging an inch.

At the more palatable end of the spectrum of reality TV are seemingly unlikely shows like History Detectives and Who Do You Think You Are. So far, part of their prime-time appeal is that searches involve travel, and meeting interesting people, seeing different libraries around the country. But what will it be like when most research can be accessed online, from a single computer? History Detectives opens with five intrepid researchers, walking toward us in slow motion, like the Clanton Gang. But in the future, where would researchers be walking? Lunch?