Fisher: Our newspapers have moved

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Photo by Darell Koh.

Last week, seeking respite from my busy shopping schedule, I decided to visit my favorite room at Yale. I discovered this room the summer before my freshman year when I wandered into Sterling Memorial Library and was a little disappointed to see a grand hall rather than rooms filled with books. Then I found something better.

In the back, tucked into a corner, was the most glorious room I’d ever seen: the Newspaper Reading Room. That day, I spent an hour touching newspapers from Ghana, Thailand, Kansas. What a pleasure it was to find my home paper here, at this overwhelming university where I was to spend the better part of the next four years. I could touch it, open it, read it, just as if I were home at my kitchen table. Or I could read a copy of the same newspaper a Parisian had perused that morning over his baguette.

I knew, when I found that room, that I could like this school.

That room is no more. I walked in last week and saw lonely wooden shelves lining the walls, their stacks of newspapers and even their labels — once an index of every important place in the world — gone.

The newspapers were removed in the first week of July after a February study of building use revealed insufficient use of the Newspaper Reading Room. The room was “used very little for study, and even less for actually reading the newspapers,” Associate Librarian Ken Crilly told me.

So the Library’s subject specialists picked which newspapers to keep and eliminated the rest. University Librarian Frank Turner and the provost’s office are discussing the room’s future use.

A sign taped on the door (“Our Newspapers Have Moved!”) directed me to the Franke Periodical Reading Room. The room is centered around computers, and academic periodicals abound. On the day I visited, one table held 42 newspapers deemed important enough to survive the move; dark metal stacks behind the reading room hold about 50 more.

The newspaper room is still open for reading, though. Kem Edwards ’49, who audits classes and comes to Sterling often, sat at a table one afternoon reading Dickens.

He never really read the library’s newspapers when they were around, but, when asked about the dying industry, he said, “Probably for journalism that’s okay, but there’s a great pleasure in having something to hold on to instead of reading it on a screen.”

That’s right, Mr. Edwards.

Crilly and Head of Access Services Brad Warren stoically told me the library’s purpose is to support teaching and research. The library actually expanded its collection of electronic papers, even as it decided to cut its print collection. Among students, of course, Crilly said, “there’s a great preference for accessing newspapers electronically.”

And that’s it. No nostalgia, no lamenting the future of the industry, not even any thanks for the habit, truth and trust newspapers have given us. Use of the room has dropped; goodbye, newspapers. Is this an economic decision? No. A cultural one? No. It is pragmatism at its clearest and cruelest.

If Yale students want to read the paper online, so be it. I have trouble with electronic media, but I’m a Luddite. I tend toward the fatalistic, so I’ll worry about the demise of democracy with the loss of society’s main conduit for a mainstream culture, while everyone else gets his news on his laptop or Blackberry. But when Yale University, one of the world’s foremost institutions of learning and culture, eliminates newspapers without a second thought, I’m less forgiving. Maybe the Internet will complete its takeover soon. But newspapers are not dead yet. They should at least be available for both those who love them and those who want to occasionally page through them.

Newspapers unite. They create a shared local identity, a common basis for facts. If we are to become “citizens with a rich awareness of our heritage to lead and serve in every sphere of human activity,” as Yale College’s mission statement suggests, we must be rooted in the world we live in. So we should be able to pick up a copy of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (still available in the Franke room), but we should also be able to hold the Indianapolis Star (no longer available in print).

The Internet is useful, but it can’t ground us in our homes across the world. Print newspapers land with a thud on our doorsteps as we sleep. Something about the electronic versions — all those signals flying through the air — doesn’t cut it. No longer can a scared freshman walk into a room and know, however far away home may be, that things are just the same here, that the world is connected by the regular men whose stories lie in the pages of the newspapers we all read.

Instead, as Kem Edwards said of the paperless newspaper room, “it looks kinda bare now.”

Julia Fisher is a sophomore in Berkeley College.

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