I spent this morning in the Umeå University library basement looking through newspapers on microfilm. I was glad to see that the microfilm section had a new digital reader, which allowed for better zooming and image adjustment than the old machine, but I still could only print out the images rather than saving them as electronic files.
The reason I was there was to find out about the public reaction to the muskox which migrated over the Norwegian-Swedish border in 1971. While the major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten has a complete digital archive (a paid subscription is required to access it), there are few digitised newspapers for Sweden for the 20th century. The National Library of Sweden has digitised a good number of newspapers from the 19th century, but the available content after the turn of the century is woefully small. There is a service called Retriever that has some Swedish newspapers, but only from the 1980s onward. So that means that any newspaper coverage of the 1971 migration does not exist in digital form. Thus the trip to scroll through newspaper microfilms on a wild goose (or in this case, wild muskox) chase.
While historians have been looking through microfilms for years, the requirement to do so stresses how a big chunk of the 20th century is for the most part invisible on the internet. There was a very good article in the Atlantic in July 2013 about the disappearance of mid-20th century books. Because mid-20th century books are still in copyright but not available from presses, they don’t show up in Amazon or other booksellers. They are available only to people through physical copies in libraries that already have them.
Old documents that are out of copyright (generally before 1923) are regularly available. The book and journal contents of the Internet Archive never cease to amaze me! And old journals are often Open Access through services like JSTOR or the Biodiversity Heritage Library. On the other end of the timescale, new research is easy enough to get most of the time through my university library (although sometimes interlibrary loans are required). But the stuff in between 1923 and 1980 is often quite hard to locate.
This has consequences. As an article from 2007 on the challenges and effects of digitising our history in New York Times pointed out, digitisation makes certain sources visible, thus researchable and “important”, while other things are not. If I want to know the muskox story from 1971, I have no alternative — I must waste away hours watching the microfilm fly by while trying to catch a glimpse of “Myskox” in a headline. I did find three articles during my two and a half hours, so that’s something, but lacking digitisation, this part of the story will likely remain under-explored.