Saturday, April 14, 2007

Paging Through History

I am currently researching a term paper regarding the media coverage of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. That’s right - 1961. It occurred about 18 months before I was born and is one of this nation’s historic moments that I have not had occasion to study in any real depth. Yes, I leaned about it during my journey through California’s public education system, but it was only a punctuation mark in a larger event known as the Cold War.

The preliminary section of the paper is due Monday. The historic synopsis and introduction of the analysis represent perhaps about half of the writing, but only about 25 percent of the research. The story of the Bay of Pigs, including the intelligence, the decision-making process, the reasons for failure and the fallout can be told with a great deal of accuracy with a minimum of research. However, the meat of this paper, analyzing the media coverage - specifically that of the New York Times and the Nation - will be the challenge. And although this all happened 46 years ago, the parallels to the events leading up to our current foreign policy quagmire are eerie to say the least.

But that’s not what I want to write about today. My last three pieces had to do with foreign policy; tonight I want to reflect on a much more personal and immediate experience. The research.

I wrote a post a few months ago titled, “The Record’s Records.” I tried to reflect upon the experience of not just learning about history, but actually touching it. At the offices of my former employer, the Colfax Record, the newspaper’s actual physical archives of are housed. I could, on a whim, pick up a newspaper printed almost a century ago. Although I rarely had any reason to read the back issues, I would leaf through the pages just to enjoy the experience. The smell, the look and the velvety feel of that old newsprint is mesmerizing… almost taking me back to those days gone by.

The New York Times back issues are recorded on microfilm and microfiche at the Sacramento State Library. Furthermore, if one is a subscriber to Times Select (I am) the archives are available online. It makes my job a little easier because I can do my research from home. The experience is enjoyable, much like researching anything else that interests me. However, the Nation, which has been in regular publication since the Civil War days, is only available in bound volumes. They are the actual print versions bound for the purpose of archival preservation.

The fragile, soft, velvety feel of the slowly decaying newsprint - housed in the basement of the Sacramento State Library - had the same effect on me as did the Colfax Record archives. This time, however, I have a mission. I am handling these historic volumes to read the news as it was reported in real time… 46 years later. The context of the other news happening at the time, the advertisements, even the layout can deliver me to a place in time before my time. It is an experience that isn’t possible with the sterility of microfiche or the Internet. It feels somehow less authentic without the tactile experience of the actual physical documents printed in real-time at the time.

As more and more documents are archived electronically, the ability to preserve the information indefinitely becomes a reality. It is a good thing - the physical editions have a limited lifetime no matter how carefully handled. Unfortunately, the physical connection with the past cannot be replicated electronically. We are fortunate that old - often very old - documents are still available to be handled, examined and read. Our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will not be so fortunate. And they might never even know what they missed.

19 comments:

Judith said...

Very interesting article...Michele sent me...

Catherine said...

I have had the good fortune to handle old newspapers, while researching my family history, but since most of them are held in cities far from my own, the internet, microfilm etc come in very handy too. And helpful librarians who will scan and send copies from the original newspapers. The snippets of news that surround the items I am interesting sometimes make very curious reading.
I was ten years old at the time of the Bay of Pigs. and a long way away. I probably didn't pay too much attention at the time.
Michele sent me.

kenju said...

It is sad, Mike, that it is happening. Today's youngsters are so competent with computers that they disdain information from other types of media. They truly do not know what it was like, especially years ago, to have to wait for details of events of a world-shaking nature.

I had an uncle who (along with his family) had to be evacuated from Guantanamo Bay. The local papers told about how they, having lived there for 3-4 years, had to be flown home to WV in the month of February, with no coats or warm clothing for themselves of their children. I remember watching Pres. Kennedy on TV during the crisis. It was heady stuff for a 20 year old.

Michele sent me back.

Paul said...

I remember that event very well. I was in line to "get ready." For an 18-yr-old PFC, going to battle against the Russians was no small thought.

From Michele's.

margalit said...

We live very close to a National Archives center that stores old documents pertaining to Boston. They include census records that go back as far as there was a census, shipping records, emigration and immigration records, and various other things that are available to any citizen to use for research. I did some geneological research there, and found some remarkable things, including census records showing my great great grandfather, the first to come to Boston, in the census from before the civil war.

You're right, the smell, the feel, and the emotions of handling old paper is remarkable. When I got the copies of my father's military records, even the copies were amazing to view. Especially since typewriters are extinct now, and old handwritten records seem almost foolish.

Nice post, Mike.

Diane said...

Hello, Michele sent me.

I was born in April 1961 in Long Beach, California. Because it is a major port and there are military facilities nearby, there was worry that the area would be a target during the Cuban Missile Crisis, so my mother and grandmother took my brother and I to Utah until it passed

Karen said...

Kennedy owned up to his mistakes regarding the Bay of Pigs which is in deep contrast to our current idiot prez!


over from Michele's.

MileHighDivaCyn said...

Hello from Michele.
My exhusband was a Marine during the Bay of Pigs...he said we were VERY close to a major war and we were very much in danger here in the US.
This president scares me more really.

MissMeliss said...

I think there's magic in old paper. The knowledge that other hands have turned the same pages, read the very same ink - all that. I mean, I love online archives - they're quick and handy and such, but - paper is special.

My favorite visit with my favorite aunt included the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the rare book library at Yale.

I came away completely awed by the experience.

Also, thanks for the comment you left on my blog earlier. I want to rewrite that piece better, but I didn't want to let myself censor.

Anonymous said...

The museam that is located on the sight is facinating as it details the hour by hour manouvers of each individual unit on both sides throughout the three days of the engagement. The detail includes the complete equipment inventory down to every gun, every grenade, and the remaining amunition supply caried by each participant.
The basic shortcoming was that the invaders were expecting to be welcomed with open arms as liberators, that would marshal an uprising of the locals opposed to their new government.
The reality was that the local residents withheld all support, provided misdirection to the invaders and inteligence to the defenders and had basically stalled the advance even before any troop reinforcements had arrived.
There are twelve foot high polished black granite monuments engraved with the names of the fallen defenders along the roads in the region at the locations where every skirimsh occured.
One has to wonder if the actions of all sides of the current conflicts are actually being archived with the accuracy displayed by those in the past whose ability to reproduce, and hence to re-edit, was limited by the technology of the day.

Awareness said...

Perhaps if we all stopped and took the time to read our history, and to learn from decisions made during past events we could learn a thing or two.

My husband is an editor for an electronic text centre at the local university........often spending his days helping historians and their ilk capture previous research and writings for their journals and websites.

We have accumulated such knowledge, and yet we choose to file it on a shelf......real or virtual and never drink from it's fountain.

ps. I was just a babe when the Bay of Pigs took place. It was also taught in Canadian History courses.

I wonder if newspapers from other countries would have written about it with a different slant than the Times and the Post? I'm thinking specifically of the UK papers. Who knows?

ZoeyBella said...

In my line of work, I'm always going through old newspapers. Microfilm helps a lot because I find it's more "real" than anything I can find on line. The Net is good for a few things, but nothing beats being able to look through real papers and see history.

Good luck with that term paper!

craziequeen said...

Coincidentally, my post today is about an important date in history....

Keeping history alive is not only about documents, but telling the stories - like in history....but no one listens any more :-(

cq
Michele sent me to say hi, Mike.

Sarch said...

Michael I have been in the printing field in one position or another for over twenty years. Your subject resonates with me.

I have an ongoing love affair with the written word. Not only the content, but the actual printed and bound matter. To me there is nothing like holding something in your hand to read. The feel and heft, the smell. I too am appreciative of our current electronic options but hope that we never lose touch with the physical written word.

Hey, you're invited to a little get together at Sarchs' Blog this afternoon.

kenju said...

That Michele! She keeps sending me back here, Mike. Do you have a lesson I need to learn? Hopefully, I will get it....someday....LOL

MileHighDivaCyn said...

Hello again from Michele's!!

kate said...

technology is so far reaching isnt it! Gosh I feel like I should say Michele sent me... but alas, I am here of my own accord! lol

Cheers Mike

Maria said...

I enjoyed reading your post. I was at the University of Minnesota at the time of the Bay of Pigs. I remember vividly the fear and anxiety that permeated the campus.

Good luck with your paper and with your research. Thank you, too, for taking the time to visit my site today.

Snaggle Tooth said...

I find reading actual hard-copy easier on the eyes, n tend to get distracted with the peripheral impertinent stories n ads.
Online is quick n easy, but very solitary and impersonal. Holding it in the hand seems more real- interactive, not passive.

Hmmm, I'll have to revisit that historic incident at some point- to see what I think now- Interesting twist on your researching the role of the media-