Nostalgia makes conservatives of us all. Reading Katie Allen’s piece in the Media Guardian this week about the forthcoming closure of Colindale national newspaper library (‘British Library in Colindale: the final chapter‘) my immediate reaction was ‘No! They can’t do that, I spent many joyful months holed up in Colindale thumbing through newspapers and magazines of the 1940s.’
Sepia tinged images floated into my head of days poring over frayed copies of the News Chronicle, the Listener, and Time and Tide. Back in 2002-3 I spent months in the national newspaper library at Colindale reading the UK daily press from the 1930s through to the 1950s for my doctorate on the origins of modern spin.
Colindale will be closed, I read, and its holdings moved to Boston Spa in Yorkshire. There, public access to the print papers will be strictly limited. Instead people will have to use microfilm or view digital copies of the papers. “My vision for this [the national newspaper archive] is it will be a different kind of archive,” the head of the newspaper library, Ed King, told Katie Allen, “A binary archive”. Pragmatic, but decidedly unromantic.
How could you feel the same way as a contemporary felt without reading the paper as they did? Without turning the pages, seeing the news in the context? And how would digital navigation account for serendipity?
But if I take off my rose tinted spectacles and think back, Colindale wasn’t all sunshine and roses. For a start no-one has ever spent ‘long days’ at Colindale. The library doesn’t open until 10am and they started chivvying you out after 4.30pm. On top of which the process for calling up newspapers could take up to an hour, so by the time you’d been through a dozen or so papers it was often time to go.
Plus, many of the newspapers I needed to read had already been transferred to microfilm – a roll of celluloid that you stuck on a wheel beneath an illuminated screen and then unwound. Staring at the news pages spinning by was, though mesmerizing, almost predetermined to make me feel seasick. Feeling dizzy, every hour or so I’d bumble out of the darkened film room and down onto Colindale Avenue.
Colindale itself is perched in the nether regions of the Northern Line. The library sits squat between suburban semis and car showrooms. Window shopping at lunchtime was mostly limited to the newsagent at the tube station and the airfix model shop next door (a chance to revisit glue fingered school days).
Yet despite its downsides I still have reservations about the new digital library. The rationale makes sense – newspaper content continues to proliferate, print is terribly fragile and prone to disintegrate from over use, Colindale is no longer big enough nor does it have adequate facilities to keep the papers in good condition.
But still. My understanding of the post-war period would be stunted without my time at Colindale. Scanning the tiny type of The Times inside pages – articles pressed together because space was so tight (there was paper rationing in the 1940s). Being distracted by Beachcomber in the Express (when the Express was the highest selling daily paper and reported from ‘the sunny side of the street’ – how far away that seems). Following the daily progress of the 1945 general election campaign – where Clement Attlee achieved a remarkable upset unseating Winston Churchill. ‘It is the first election’ wrote a Times editorial, ‘in which the use of the wireless has been the outstanding feature of the campaign’ (wireless meaning rather a different thing back then).
All things must pass. Indeed there was a period when it looked as though the existing print papers at Colindale would be destroyed. The move to Boston Spa and digitization project has only been made possible by a £33m government grant. And at some point I’m sure I’ll find myself reading a newspaper from the early 19th century online and thinking, how remarkable that I can do this from the comfort of my own study. Still, nostalgia makes conservatives of us all.