Most Australian daily capital city newspapers have had newspaper libraries for many decades—some for close to 50 years.
Newspapers have traditionally had two different sections for collating material: editorial libraries for books, clippings and so on; and pictorial libraries for picture files and negatives, often with few links between the two departments.
Newspaper libraries maintained their records in various clippings files, organised by subject. The daily routine involved ‘marking’ the paper, then clipping, pasting and filing. Clippings files were indispensable to a reporter when researching a story, because they provided an overview on an issue or personality. Even now, the system’s utility is evident when old files are required—for instance, during the annual release of 30-year-old Cabinet documents by the National Archives of Australia.
The librarians became skilled at very quickly flipping through files when attempting to locate a particular story. The disadvantage, especially when a large story was breaking, was that files could only be borrowed by one person at a time. Worse still was the problem of a file going missing altogether. For this reason, most libraries had a policy of not allowing files to be removed from the office.
Before faxes and email, stories from files would need to be read aloud over the phone to reporters in interstate offices—often the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery—or a reporter filing from a hotel room during an election campaign.
Public libraries have played an important role in indexing Australian newspapers; for instance, the State Library of Victoria indexed them from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before digitisation, the bound indexes (1927–61) published by John Fairfax & Sons to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sydney Mail and the Sun-Herald meant that these newspapers were used heavily by researchers.
The Melbourne Age library’s general and sports clippings collection dates back to the late 1950s, although some personal files go back to the 1930s. When the Argus ceased publication in 1957, the collection was divided, with the clipping files going to the Age and the photo files going to the Herald and Weekly Times. Some in-house newspaper indexes found their way to public libraries; for instance, the 1890–1958 ledgers for Truth are held by the State Library of New South Wales.
Other resources held in newspaper libraries have included book collections, reference and biography, Hansard, Acts of Parliament, Australian Bureau of Statistics information and magazines, with electoral rolls on microfiche. An invaluable resource for many years in Melbourne was the Sands and McDougall directory, listing streets with name of the residents at each house number.
Most newspapers had their papers compiled into bound volumes by outside companies, a practice continued into the 1970s. These took up considerable space, and older issues were stored in archives. State libraries kept these bound volumes as well. This practice was discontinued by newspaper companies due to storage requirement, and the advent of microfilm, PDF and digital technologies.
Microfilm has been in constant use in newspaper libraries for many decades. Whereas in the early years it was utilised mainly by a reporter taking notes and perhaps taking a roll of 35 mm film to the imaging department for a frame to be photographed for a tear-out, now a page or article can be scanned and emailed anywhere rather than having to be printed and faxed. Microfilm has been an efficient way to hold the records of a newspaper’s collection in a compact space. PDFs of each day’s paper are also a welcome addition, but browsing through pages on a microfilm gives a picture of the layout and priority of placement for an article.
Most libraries ceased clipping articles for files in the 1990s. All the major media organisations retain all stories and pictures in their own databases, with articles commencing in the mid-1980s and photos being introduced a few years later. However, older photos are added to pictorial databases whenever they are needed for a story.
The process of information collection and storage was originally quite labour intensive. The Brisbane Courier-Mail library had just over 30 staff members in the 1960s after it was merged with that of the Telegraph. The West Australian library, which started in 1959, had 23 staff members by the late 1980s. The Age library had about 14 staff members, and the Sydney Morning Herald about 25. Staff came from a variety of backgrounds; the winner of the first Miss Australia contest (a 1926 newspaper stunt), Beryl Mills, became an early Consolidated Press librarian.
With digitisation, most libraries now operate with only a handful of staff—perhaps three to six people. Data and stories move on from the sub-editor’s desk, ending up in an internal database with classification headings added. There has been a move in recent years to have this role outsourced, which means newspaper libraries and media researchers today deal more with reference and research queries.
Many journalists use the database, and may do a lot of research themselves, but will often contact the library if they need more thorough research, problem-solving or faster results. The library also does research for journalists and contributors who work elsewhere, for overseas and interstate offices, and in some instances, for a fee, for outside researchers. The library may also do supplementary work on a story—such as panels and timelines.
Libraries in Australia can be in contact with overseas newspaper libraries and media researchers through listservs, the main one being Newslib, originating in the United States. This can be used for discussing ideas and issues that may arise, and for seeking assistance or information. International databases such as Factiva and Lexis are widely used, as are searches of ASIC documents, electoral rolls, inter-library loans, and the purchasing of photographs from picture agencies.
The future will show whether management wishes to continue with specialised library and research staff or cut costs and have journalists do all research themselves.
The Australian Newspaper Digitisation Program aims to make as many Australian newspapers published prior to 1955 as possible available via Trove, hosted by the National Library of Australia.