Every week I spend some time thumbing through old issues of America. A total of 198 volumes, from 1909 to the present, occupy nearly two full stacks in our editorial office. I am looking for a selection for the feature on our Web site called In These Pages. Every week we post articles from our archives on topics addres-sed in that week’s print edition. (Have a look at americamagazine.org/pages.)
As the magazine’s online editor, it might seem odd for me to engage in such a backward-looking pursuit. But I relish it. If you’re looking for an introduction to the last 100 years of American Catholic history, there are few better places to start. The America archives are a rich resource for all the editors here, and you can often spot one of them perched at a desk in our editorial offices, poring over page after page of yellowing paper.
Sadly this is not an activity that most readers of America are able to enjoy. Sure, some of our loyal readers keep old issues for decades, stacking them in closets or garages. But only a few places—mostly libraries—are home to a full set, and that number is dwindling.
It is no great secret that libraries are slowly discarding their print collections in favor of digital reproductions. A few years ago, in the early days of the Web, we received a few calls from librarians who wondered whether we would like their old volumes of America, since they no longer had use for them. The problem is that digital versions are available for only a relatively few recent years of most print magazines—in the case of America, back to about 1988. That leaves the first 80 years of America’s analysis and commentary no longer available in many libraries.
Thus was born the America archives project. Over the past year, we have been cobbling together a full set of volumes for digital scanning. We are grateful to those who have contributed to our collection, in particular the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center in New York and the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pa. Thanks to them, and the roomy interior of my dad’s old Mercury station wagon, we now have almost an entire set.
Our project is an ambitious one: to scan and index every article, editorial and book review that has appeared in these pages since April 1909. By our rough estimate, that amounts to over 150,000 pages of material. To scan articles, the bindings of each volume must be removed, making them practically unusable after they are scanned. The magazine owns only two full sets of bound issues, which is why we solicited volumes from our readers and friends.
To help us with this project, we have engaged the services of a company that already distributes the last 20 years of America in digitized form to university libraries and other educational institutions. Over the next year or two, they will scan every article in our archives into viewable pages, using the industry-standard portable document format (PDF). They will also be preparing abstracts for each article, a crucial part of the process to facilitate the search for content.
This is an expensive project, but one that we believe will provide a great resource to researchers everywhere, as well as to America readers. To help recoup the considerable cost, we plan to sell individual articles on our Web site for a nominal fee. We will also be applying for grants and seeking the financial assistance of our generous supporters. The highlight of this enterprise is that students and researchers will be able to search our archives through university libraries at no cost using the digital distribution service mentioned above.
As the country’s oldest Catholic weekly magazine, America has always been an invaluable tool for researchers. If you want to know how the church grappled with a particular religious or political issue, chances are you will find an answer in our pages. For this, our centennial year, my colleague James T. Keane, S.J., has been editing a selection of our “greatest hits” for reproduction in the print magazine. So far we have highlighted articles by Hilaire Belloc and John Courtney Murray, S.J.; pieces by John F. Kennedy and others are still to come.
Yet these articles provide only a hint of the range of analysis and nuance that have been the hallmark of this magazine for so many years. Want to read the editors on Joe McCarthy, Richard McCormack, S.J., on Humanae Vitae or Andrew Greeley on Bruce Springsteen? For now, you’re welcome to visit our offices and peruse our collection. In the not too distant future, we hope, you won’t have to travel so far.