I have the good fortune to be processing the collection of the Maine Media Women, a statewide organization dedicated to supporting women who work in communications. Materials from 1952, when MMW was founded as Maine Press Radio and Television Women, to the early 2000s document the organization’s history and shed light on the challenges women have faced in this field. A lot could be written about these challenges and about the fascinating women of this group, but what has snagged my attention at the moment is the role of the lowly newspaper clipping. Brittle, yellow, often crookedly cut, many collections have them, folder after bulging folder of clippings, and this collection is no exception.
Maine Media Women sponsored a scholarship program, hosted lectures and workshops, and found other ways to facilitate networking and educational opportunities for its members. (They still do. Check out the present-day incarnation of the organization at http://www.mainemediawomen.org/) Much of this is documented in the usual ways – meeting minutes and agendas, correspondence, newsletters and other publications, and, of course, in newspaper clippings. Where the correspondence about a particular event might be messy and perhaps incomplete, the news item that describes the event is tidy, succinct, and complete.
Perhaps the newspaper clipping represents the public face the organization (any organization) hopes to present to the world. It is the event encapsulated and idealized, minus the drama of pulling the event together – the worries about attendance, the logistics, the behind-the-scenes tension and the post-event dissection of what went wrong, what went right, and what could have been done better. This drama comes out in the archival materials: the letters, the emails, the financial reports.
Another aspect of the newspaper clipping phenomenon that intrigues me is the irony: the paper on which most newspapers are printed is an inherently unstable medium that deteriorates quickly, and yet people save clippings to document their lives (or the lives of organizations) for posterity. Once committed to newsprint, what was fleeting or personal becomes part of the historical and public record, bearing witness for all to see and read that this particular thing happened at this particular time.
As a processor and as a researcher, I admit that I prefer the scrawled note on the back of an envelope or the hastily typed memo to the tidiness of the press clipping. The former seems more real, the latter – the clipping – more processed and therefore somehow less true. But thinking of the two kinds of material as mirror images of each other gives me a greater appreciation for the yellowed scraps of newsprint and reminds me to listen to the collection. It is through the scraps of paper, the memos, the photographs, the newspaper clippings – in short, through all the items in an archival collection – that an organization speaks to us and tells its story. Both sides of the story – the idealized version that persists in the pages of the paper, and the passing, untidy version of the story that is revealed in the other documents.