Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The AADL's Ann Arbor News archives: photos and factoids

I had the good fortune on Monday to join a tour of the AADL facility where they're housing and digitizing the Ann Arbor News archives, along with archives of other local newspapers and some other interesting stuff. The tour was organized by friend of Damn Arbor, Patti Smith, for the local nonprofit A2Geeks.

The man in the striped shirt is Andrew MacLaren.

We were met by Andrew MacLaren, one of the AADL's archivists, who gave us background information and guided us on the tour. The archives consist primarily of bound volumes of the News, photo negatives, and backfiles, plus the clip files the AADL maintained on its own.

Negative images of historical front pages greet visitors.

When the Ann Arbor News announced in 2009 it was shutting down, the AADL began negotiating to obtain its archives. They succeeded; in 2010 the materials were moved to this AADL facility on Green Road, a suite in a nondescript office building.

Andrew joked, seriously, that the library got a good deal on the location since most companies don't like offices without windows—but archivists hate windows! The facility also had an old server room with raised floors and an industrial air chiller; that cool, dry air and resistance to flooding makes it ideal for storing negatives, but we'll get there later.

These headlines are fascinating.

The News and the library agreed that the AADL can keep all the materials until it finishes digitizing them, and the library can keep those digital copies online forever. The only notable exception is photography of UM sports, which the News' parent company wanted to keep for itself. (That's where the money is in journalism these days, folks. Sports.)

Update, Feb. 26: the News informed me today that the UM sports photos are being archived by the Michigan History Project, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit. I don't have time to dig into this right now—I'll follow up later, promise!—but it's worth noting.

This story is why your community needs a good public library!

The materials in the archive are a great historical resource. The archives go back to 1926, but coverage between then and 1935 is spotty. And much of WWII is missing; Andrew explained that the archives were located in the basement of the Ann Arbor News building on Huron, and they weren't secured properly, so materials from big news events had a tendency to go missing.

And in the middle of the 20th century there are some missing materials because the News simply didn't want them to take up space, so negatives and clips were sent home with photographers and reporters or otherwise disposed of. One of the participants on the tour, an Ann Arbor News veteran, informed us that clip files were regularly culled and the clips would be offered to their authors before being trashed.

The basement storage location, with its steam pipes and other problems, was a problem; some negatives, especially older ones, are damaged from decades of improper storage conditions.

These bound volumes contain the Ann Arbor News archives from its last several years of life.

Each book covers the same amount of time, but you can see them getting thinner over the years: you're literally watching the News die.

The digitized materials are being made available at oldnews.aadl.org, where you can spend literally weeks browsing.

As you would expect, digitizing this amount of material is a Herculean effort. The pace of the project changes depending on other projects the AADL is undertaking and the number of summer interns they have. (The News said there are 900 thousand photo negatives in the archives, but Andrew estimated there are closer to 1.2 million negatives; 30,684 have been scanned so far.)

Inquiries from the public help guide the library on deciding which material to digitize, said Andrew. So if there's something you want to see that's not yet on Old News, email them at oldnews@aadl.org!

The library's new camera scanning rig allows scanning large newspaper pages.

The archives also contain the clip files the AADL maintained independently until 2003.

Andrew telling us about the clip files.

And they don't consist entirely of the Ann Arbor News: the AADL also has one of the only complete archives of the Ann Arbor Observer.

The Ann Arbor Observer archives.

Andrew claimed it was the only such collection, but one of the tour participants, an archivist at UM's Hatcher library, informed us that her library recently completed its Observer collection.

In addition to the newspaper archives, a couple tables are filled with the history of the AADL itself. These materials were collected from branches, offices, and homes; and the library is now beginning to organize its own history.

History of the AADL, part 1

History of the AADL, part 2

Then we went into the photo storage room! The server-grade air conditioner and raised floor make this room ideal for storing negatives and exceptionally sensitive paper materials.

I don't have much to say about these photos, so just enjoy them:

The "name files" are indexed by the names of people appearing in the photos.

Navigating the archives is made more difficult due to the employment of no fewer than four organizational systems over the years.

Very old negatives are 4x5 format (shown here); newer ones are in 120, then 35mm.

That's friend of the blog and a2b3 organizer, Ed Vielmetti, on the right!

The tour was really fun, and I would like to thank the AADL for having us and Patti for organizing the tour!


  1. I like the box labeled "Wrecks, Fires, Drownings, Storms 1930-1974."

  2. And thanks to Roger Rayle for setting the whole thing in motion! It was great to just hang with other history geeks :)