Published April 10, 2017

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As regular readers undoubtedly have realized, there are times when your “Roots & Branches” columnist comes up with some definitive answers to the great genealogical questions of the day.

Or at least thinks he does.

But then there are other times that what’s offered by the column is far more modest.

This is one of those times.

As I’ve written about occasionally in part columns, my observation of all the genealogical opportunities afforded by historical newspapers has morphed from a passing interest into research for a book on the topic.

Part of the book’s premise is that historical newspapers are being given a new life with the many digitization projects that are bringing searchable scans of the newspaper pages to researchers’ computer desktops.

A significant part of my experience with newspapers that predated the digitization boom was as a steering-committee member for the Pennsylvania projects that first microfilmed and then later digitized many frail paper copies of newspapers, including many from the 19th century.

We’ve gained a pretty keen appreciation for saving these historical newspapers before they crumble. While there will be a not insignificant number of “orphan” newspapers – in many cases, titles from which only an odd issue or two remains – that are not on anyone’s priority list, the trend for preserving newspapers will the largest number of pages still extant has been robust.

But what about the present-day newspapers, a larger and larger number of which have been produced only in digital form? Is anyone working on ensuring this newspaper information is not lost? (Yeah, here’s where I start the questions for which I have no answers)

What brought this to my mind is an article that came to me – I can’t even tell you how! – from a website called “Research Buzz,” written about a year ago and intriguingly headlined “Do Newspaper Archives Need a ‘Dead Man’s Switch’?”

The article was written shortly after the Turkish president, as part of an overall clampdown, took over an opposition newspaper named Zaman and deleted the newspaper’s entire digital archive dating back 27 years (My next question – do Zaman’s back issues exist in paper and/or microfilm?)

While government takeover is far less likely in the United States given the First Amendment, this article still got me thinking, “Do publishers have backup systems for their digital issues?” One would presume so, but …

Just as their still exist some qualms about digital products being migrated forward as technology advances, the thought that modern newspapers might be lost after all the stress on saving historical newspapers is mildly ironic.

Since, after all, modern newspapers become historical newspapers pretty quickly these days.