What is is, and why it matters
"In the long run, the [alternative] newspapers will have great historical and research value. Unfortunately, the stock on which they are printed is not of the best quality, and immediate attempts to preserve them must be made. If this is not done, the whole period of turmoil that we are currently experiencing will be lost to history.”
- Judith F. Krug, Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, 1977.
across the United States, to convert and preserve them as open access, fully searchable PDF files.
The ease of incorporating PDF technology should not be a obstacle for any researcher into the brash and gritty but short-lived newspapers that chronicled the short-lived New Left movement of the late 1960s.
But the question needed to be asked is: why should anyone take the trouble to preserve these dusty relics of a movement long-gone, united by a war long over?
In the United States between 1966 and 1972 there were over 400 underground papers, with 10 publishing in the northern Virginia - Washington DC area, all united against the war in Vietnam. These papers – sometimes born on a whim – succeeded at raising establishment awareness to the breathtaking potential of America’s youth, and changed the dynamic between themselves, the mainstream press and the American consumer. The underground press forced the mainstream media to confront and address social issues they ordinarily would have blown off as not newsworthy, fleeting or not keeping with their established order.
Those brazen underground papers relentlessly worked their way into the American vernacular. Congressional committees quoted them; excerpts appeared in President Nixon’s morning briefs; federal commissions invited editors to testify. Community-based, they transitioned quickly; readers soon tended less to be bomb-carrying radicals but suburban teenagers, businesspeople and parents simply wanting to keep up or just look cool.
While the sixties establishment press rarely challenged the veracity of the first amendment, the underground press did it as a matter of routine, doing exactly what that amendment was designed to protect. People with little or no journalistic experience other than an undying passion for their revolution rallied support against an unpopular war, assailed orthodoxy and challenged those in power, sometimes in capricious, tasteless ways, but never in dreary or monotonous ones.
Using their unique form of participatory and advocacy journalism, the underground papers printed after 1966 considered themselves a “revolutionary consciousness” that conveyed the writers’ own unique meaning, language and analysis rather than just information and the recitation of facts. Stories were frequently written in first person to enhance their sense of community to the reader. These untrained writers rejected the accepted language of 1950s journalism, replacing establishment terms with oppositional terms (“police officer” and “cop” became “pig” and “the man”). They replaced old Beat terms like “hip” or “cool” with “groovy” and “far out.” Advocacy journalists at these papers considered the mainstream press a collective failure in addressing the “new community” developing in the United States, pointing out their refusals to provide space for controversial ideas or present anti-establishment points of view on social issues, such as anti-war rallies or legalizing marijuana. They refused to trust the mainstream press, seeing it as obscuring its complicity with ruling class ideals behind a smokescreen of “objectivity.”
it is critical to realize that many of these papers ran articles of seminal sixties events written by reporters and photographers inside the events, rather that outside observing. The Liberation News Service, an Associated Press-style news service that mailed packets of stories and photographs to member papers around the country from 1968-1981, was the only news service to have reporters embedded inside Columbia University during the 1968 student takeover, and those reports are today considered the most authentic coverage of that influential event. A year earlier, LNS and Washington Free Press reporters were inside circle of thousands of protestors surrounding the Pentagon during the massive 1967 anti-war rally. They were the only journalists to get first-hand accounts of the altercations with police and military paratroopers, even interviewing some of the soldiers as they pointed M-16 rifles at them. LNS photographer David Fenton’s remarkable photographs of characters and events from this period are still recognized today as the best photographic chronicle of that period.
In addition to preservation and access, there are numerous other reasons why the alternative press was microfilmed. In most libraries precious floor space could suddenly be opened by film storage. Repetitive use damaged the original low-grade newsprint and caused it to prematurely deteriorate. The risk of loss through fire, damage, or theft was reduced. And of course, any lurid headlines and sexual graphics were away from the skeptical eyes of the most “puritanical” librarians and “innocent” college students.
Students and researchers during this period gladly took the time to acclimate themselves to microform technology, which was “cutting edge” and greatly improved the time involved in the research process. Even today, microfilm and microfiche are still widely used by researchers such as myself, and the PC-based readers of today (light-years ahead of the manual readers of the past) are within the use of even the least computer-savvy.
Unfortunately, the methods of microfilming utilized by Bell & Howell for the underground press were sloppy and unorganized, and research into the papers of that period can be agonizingly unproductive without a printed index. Papers were not scanned in any order, and precious few reels hold an entire run of any paper. For example, ten of the 26 total issues of the Richmond Chronicle, a biweekly underground paper that appeared in Richmond in1969, are on four separate reels, and in no particular order. In addition, many papers of that period could not afford to join the UPS, and thus were never microfilmed. The locations of these papers pose a particularly onerous dilemma to researchers such as myself.
As the computer age lurches forward we discover that frequently not all accepted means of storing data share the characteristic of eternal readability. Twenty years is the maximum time we can expect to maintain a form of digital data without converting it to a newer format. In the case of preserved newspapers commonly categorized as the underground press, this theory is relatively accurate: Created as a hard copy in 1969, the paper by 1989 may have been converted to microfilm. While microfilm is still utilized today as an archive and research technology, the advent of scanning and the creation of PDF files by 2009 has taken the preservation and research aspects a giant step further.
Created and launched by Adobe Systems in 1993, the PDF was intended to initially provide a solution for corporations and people to electronically exchange simple documents. Since then, the PDF specification has been developed to accommodate many technological uses, including converting images of alternative and underground papers into searchable research media.
Of course, researchers are still somewhat hindered by the limitations of the mediums and the haphazard archival work done in the past. Very few underground papers (and almost no Washington DC-based papers) are yet available as searchable PDF files. Only a scarce few are available as hard copies, and only a few more can be found on microfilm. An almost complete collection of the Bell & Howell reels reside at Alderman Library at the University of Virginia library in Charlottesville. It would behoove a leader in this field to encourage a library housing these papers and microfilms to initiate an effort, in consultation with libraries
Click the image to read my investigative story into the FBI's COINTELPRO activity in Austin, Texas in 1969.
Cultural, or Digital Archaeology is the practice of excavating, documenting and making available media that has been overlooked, neglected or lost and in need of restoration to close holes in historical records.
More commonly, it refers to the recovery and preservation of digital material or media created after the advent of the computer age. In this case, the practice includes the utilization of digital methods to recover pre-digital material and the preservation of that material in an open access digital format.
Creating and best utilizing digital research methodologies is critical in my field of study, which is the underground and alternative press from the Sixties up into the Eighties. In this field, I quickly became aware of research advances and especially its limitations. It became paramount that I exploit opportunities to find new and better technological procedures in areas where limitations exist.
In considering the radical underground media of that period, technological improvements in news and newsprint research has revolutionized the research process. Up until the 1960s, almost all research into newsprint was done with hanging files of hard copies and by newspaper and library “clip files;” manually cut from the papers by librarians and archivists and filed usually by topic in (hopefully) acid-free files.
Because of the inherent “adult” nature and radical proclivities of those underground publications, many libraries were hesitant to stock them or have them available on hanging files. While it is imperative that librarians today do not act as censors of what future generations may choose to research, library workers in the past may not have been so open with their data collection, and it is likely many underground titles acquired by libraries may have been tossed out or buried uncatalogued in a drawer because of an obscene headline or a lurid graphic. Taste certainly should never be the criteria to base the decision to preserve the underground and alternative press, and it is presumptuous to prevent future historians from studying the New Left movements of the 1960s and its associated newspapers and magazines, just because a curator happens to offended by the content.
Thus, during the Sixties researchers of the alternative and underground press sometimes found themselves at the mercy of an indifferent, or worse, a hostile librarian. In this case students and researchers reached frustrating dead ends and were possibly forced to abandon or re-think an entire project.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that increased funding and improved technology for microfilm and microfiche encouraged academic libraries, research libraries and newspaper archivists to expand microforms collections, not necessarily replacing the hard copies and clip files but supplementing them.
In the 1970s, libraries and publishers made wholesale transitions to microform technology as an alternative to bulky print materials, and researchers, historians and instructors were thrilled to be able to scroll through an entire collection of a paper compressed onto rolls of film. Thus in late 1969 Tom Forcade of the Underground Press Syndicate (a coalition of underground publishers) entered into an agreement with Bell & Howell Laboratories to begin microfilming their 400+ member papers.
Cultural Archaeology yields results. Following are some recent examples of how my research has solved mysteries, proved conspiracies or just told a story. Click on the headlines to read the stories.
Staunton News Leader, Sept. 25, 2015.
Story by Traci Moyer
VERONA —A tombstone, found near a bridge during a river cleanup and dating back to the 1800s, may have been tossed into the Middle River as clean fill.
“That’s a scenario that happens every now and again,” said Kevin VanPelt, owner of Heritage Memorials Inc.
The worn and broken marker, which VanPelt thinks was made of marble, was missing the name of a 20-year-old woman for whom it was created. All that was left was an inscription that said she was the “daughter of J. & S.J. Sutton, Born May 17, 1869, died March 18, 1889" ...
Austin Chronicle, June 7, 2013
Story by Dale Brumfield
The 'counterintelligence' operations of Hoover's FBI included harassment, vilification, violence – and fake 'underground' newspapers in Bloomington, D.C., and Austin...
Style Weekly, August 18, 2010
Story by Dale Brumfield
Boasting young stars, '80s exuberance and local extras working on the cheap, Richmond's lost movie finally has been found ...