Cultivating Serendipity: A Visit to the New York Times ‘Morgue’

Jeff Roth is the last man at The New York Times morgue. When he started in 1993, there were 20 archivists. Today, he’s the only one left. The morgue is an archive of tens of millions of historical clippings from the paper dating back to the 1870s, as well as 5-7 million photographic prints dating back to 1905. To organize it all, they still use card catalogs – one for the news clippings, the other for the photographic prints.

Only 1-2% of the photographic prints have been scanned. Why? First, sheer numbers – there are far too many for one man to scan. And, second, decades-old prints are fragile – they may not stand up to a scanning bed. Roth’s job is to pull historical information and photographs for reporters and researchers, as well as catalog and organize the collection. The photographs end up being scanned on an as needed basis.

The Times morgue speaks to many of the challenges archives face: small staffs with an overwhelming number of items in their collections to catalog, organize, maintain, and digitize.

Photo: Stephen Hiltner, The New York Times

Lauren Baker, LIS 653-01, Spring 2017


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by Hugh McLeod

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