Saving the Treasures from the Morgue

This post was co-written by Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, Electronic Records Archivist, Digital Services Division and Rich Saal, Photography Editor, The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois.

Union organizer and community activist Mary Harris Photography plays a crucial role in our lives and communities by documenting both grand moments and everyday routines.

Though digital photography is the norm today, large collections of film and glass plate negatives still can be found throughout the Smithsonian Institution and other organizations, including local and national newspapers.

Some newspapers still have archives of negatives, images, and clippings, known as the "morgue", or morgue files. These archives tell lively and sometimes ordinary 19th and 20th century American stories, but many of these collections are in trouble as media companies search for ways to stay afloat. Preservation of these resources is not typically a top priority at many news organizations, and the easy availability of images on the Internet has devalued photo archives as a media asset.

The New York Times launched the popular blog The Lively Morgue earlier this year, which features a few digitized images every week from its collections. In the video below, New York Times employees talk about both the importance of the newspaper morgue, and the uncertainty of this archive's future.

STORYBOARD: Inside the New York Times 'Lively Morgue' from Tumblr on Vimeo.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives also has digitized images from Science Service—a news service morgue we have in our collections.

Another newspaper photography digitization project called Springfield Photographs is a collection of glass plate negatives from the Illinois State Journal—a predecessor to The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois. I previously worked at The State Journal-Register and appreciated the value of historic images and clippings as both a journalist researching stories, and later, as the newsroom librarian pursuing preservation efforts.

I spoke with my former colleague, Photo Editor Rich Saal from The State Journal-Register, about this digitization project recently. Even as institutions and organizations struggle to figure out how to allocate limited resources, our conversation illuminated precisely why morgue files continue to be such an important part of our history. Rich offers his thoughts on the project and the state of newspaper photography archives below:

Elizabeth Skadden, an 18-year-old with big dreams, wanted to be a famous endurance flyer in October

When a photographer for the Illinois State Journal raised his Speed Graphic [camera] in October 1929 and snapped a picture of 18-year-old Elizabeth Skadden standing on the wing of a biplane, he captured the spirit of a young woman with big dreams.

Just a high school student, Skadden was inspired by the heroic flight made just two years earlier by Charles Lindbergh. She wanted badly to be an endurance flyer. Just 95 pounds and, 'pretty,' the newspaper felt obliged to point out, she was undeniably strong-willed and focused.

'Just as soon as I get my chance, I hope to set a new endurance record for women flyers which will stand for a long, long time,' she told the newspaper.

Elizabeth's story is a tiny part of the vast historical and descriptive visual record created by American newspapers that is unparalleled in its depth and scale. Every community in the country went through urban expansion, Prohibition and its repeal, the Great Depression, both World Wars, and the period of cultural and commercial vitality in their downtown business districts. And in these communities, there was a newspaper recording it all.

When I digitized a collection of glass plate negatives taken between 1929 and 1935 for our predecessor newspaper, the Illinois State Journal, a portrait of Springfield emerged that I barely recognized. Not a portrait found in a single image, but one that was revealed by pictures taken over time of its cultural and built environment, the people walking its streets and in their daily routines, the lively public square in its role as the heart of the city, and the personality of a place that came through in the interaction of all these things.

In most any community during the early 20th century, invariably life revolved around its downtown pu

The concern for newspaper photography collections is made all the more urgent by the turbulent and uncertain future of newspapers. As the industry looks forward, will it leave behind the visual legacy it created? I’ve heard the horror stories of collections being discarded because there was no room, no interest, no time, or money to digitize them.

There are options. Organizations and individuals that support preservation of historical documents are out there. Grant money for digitization projects can be found if a solid proposal is presented. Community volunteers can be trained to work gradually through a collection. Newspapers should be encouraged to work with local or state historical organizations to find solutions for preservation of their photographic archives.

A newspaper’s visual legacy is unique, interesting to the community it covers, and important to researchers and historians. And it is irreplaceable.

Rich Saal is photography editor at The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill. and has a Master’s in History. He writes regularly about images from his newspaper’s collection and can be reached at rich.saal@sj-r.com.

Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig worked with Rich Saal at The State Journal-Register from 1993–2001.

Related Collections

SIA RU007091, Science Service, Records, circa 1910–1963, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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