Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


How Google Disrespected Mexican History

• July 10, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Opinion: Anything can happen when Google gets involved in digitizing national treasure troves of archived information, warns a frustrated scholar.

In September 2006, Google News launched News Archive Search “to help users quickly and easily search for events, people and ideas over different periods of time.” Google News, in turn, had been launched in September 2002 “to [use] computers to organize the world’s news in real time.” Then, in September 2008 (September must be some sort of talisman in Sunnyvale), Google announced it was expanding the News Archive Search back in time “to make more old newspapers accessible and searchable online.”

“History buffs: take note,” Google triumphantly proclaimed.

Well, yes, history buffs, take note once more. In an unpublicized letter to its news archive digitization partners sent in May this year, Google told them the digitization project was going away, although existing material was, for now at least, still available. So the historical initiative at Google had really lasted less than three years. Is this any way to run a historical archive? I don’t think so. Historians generally have a longer attention span.

Some onlookers, INFOdocket for one, reasonably comment that Google is not a historical archive, but a business like any other. That doesn’t mean, of course, that a historical archive can’t be a business, but most aren’t. There isn’t usually much profit in preserving the raw materials of history, as any archivist can tell you. As INFOdocket observed, Google is a for-profit business, with stockholders, partners and bankers. If it can preserve primary sources for history and make money, Google will do it. If not, then not. That should come as no surprise, right? But, apparently, surprise some it did, since, after all, Google’s old motto was “Don’t Be Evil.” Historians have been known to confuse profits and evil more or less reflexively.

There is, however, a small group of scholars muttering, “We told you so.” I am one of them, a survivor of the “Paper of Record affair.” We learned the hard way that what Google giveth, Google taketh away. Without notice. Without warning. And without explanation. That Google’s actions in the Paper of Record affair brought an international group of scholars’ work to a screeching halt should have served as a distinct warning to universities that think the market will save them. Which, these days, is probably most of them, and other cultural institutions, too. (Miller-McCune wrote about the Paper of Record affair in “Digital Disappearance,” a 2010 story about the threat to the historical record in the digital age.)

Paper of Record is a Canadian website that boasts of building the world’s largest searchable archive of historical newspapers. It was conceived, appropriately enough, in a Mexican restaurant in Ottawa by R. J. (Bob) Huggins. Paper of Record is, to my knowledge, the most extensive searchable archive of Mexican historical newspapers in the world. There are more than 150 logged newspapers, some dating as far back as the 1840s. Paper of Record became, outside of the National Newspaper Library of Mexico, the single most important resource of its kind for scholars like me working in Mexican history — in Mexico, the United States, anywhere. With an excellent user interface and powerful search engine, Paper of Record made a vast collection of what had been nearly unusable and generally inaccessible primary sources searchable and exploitable, at no charge to users. For some scholars, especially those of us doing commercial, political or economic history, Paper of Record became literally indispensable.

Then Google bought it.

Google closed down Paper of Record, made the papers inaccessible, promised to make them available under Google News, but mostly didn’t, and then virtually refused to discuss what had happened with anyone. Research projects in Mexico and the United States came to a halt. Advanced graduate students were stymied. A Mexican colleague asked me over lunch what had happened to Paper of Record. Not having visited the site for a couple of weeks, I didn’t know it was gone. Neither Google nor Paper of Record had seen fit to give its users any notice. They just pulled the plug … and then darkness.

OK, long story short: From February 2009 to February 2011, by my record, a number of scholarly associations in Mexico and the United States (including the American Historical Association), numerous individual scholars in Mexico and in the United States, and a raft of academic and Internet data sites tried to find out what had become of the papers in the Paper of Record digital archives. Google made a half-hearted but mostly unusable stab at putting some of the papers on a commercial site, WorldVitalRecords.com, but the results were worse than dismal. Some research institutions in the United States were then told Paper of Record was coming back as a subscription site. Google, meanwhile, said virtually nothing. The Mexican newspapers were gone.

That is, until they returned, after a two-year hiatus, but now behind a pay wall operated by Paper of Record, under the proverbial “new management.” My university balked at a subscription because at any plausible level of use, a subscription could cost several thousand dollars a year.

What happened? Well, who knows? It’s not like Google has told anyone, or will. We do know Google is no longer interested in the historical newspaper business, but then again, Paper of Record users got a foretaste of Google’s quirky ways long before anyone else did.

So you want Google (or perhaps any commercial enterprise) to digitize your books and papers and make them available to everyone for all eternity? Profits and losses come and go, but history is forever and not necessarily responsive to market incentives. Be careful what you wish for. Google may give it to you, or, then again, maybe not.

Meanwhile, it would be nice to think that the United States could afford a national digital newspaper archive. It may have to wait for better times with the federal budget. But now is the time to start planning how to preserve the materials that will allow us to know who we are and what we stand for — before our politicians conclude that it’s cheaper and more convenient to get history wrong.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Richard J. Salvucci
Richard J. Salvucci is a professor of economics at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, specializing in Mexican economic history, Latin American economic development and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He is the author of "Politics, Markets and Mexico's London Debt - 1823-1887."

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.


October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.


October 15 • 8:00 AM

A Brief History of High Heels

How what was once standard footwear for 16th-century Persian horsemen became “fashion’s most provocative accessory.”


October 15 • 7:22 AM

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don’t always take alerts seriously.


October 15 • 6:00 AM

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?


October 15 • 4:00 AM

Green Surroundings Linked to Higher Student Test Scores

New research on Massachusetts schoolchildren finds a tangible benefit to regular exposure to nature.


Follow us


How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.