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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.

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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."

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