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Nonfiction Matters
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Browsing Is the New Time Travel

I Was at YIVO Yesterday — An Archive of Jewish History Here in New York

I was there to do some research on plays my father designed for the Yiddish art Theater in the mid 1920s and I was thrilled to find performance photos. I’d seen images of his sets before, but never with real costumed actors performing in them. Waiting for some new files I happened to notice a fascinating clipping — an article from the September 26, 1926 New York Times in which an actor in the Yiddish theater compared the audience in that theater world to the audience at a mainstream English-language show. I wanted to read it more carefully today so I emailed Jesse Cohen, the very helpful archivist who had been my guide. Jesse pointed me to the historical New York Times — which leads to this blog.
      I am sure it is no surprise to any of you that so many old articles are available online — in one form of database or another. I spent a very enjoyable hour finding articles in the Times about the Yiddish theater and my father’s early work. When I told my 9 year old son he immediately asked — does that mean there are articles about Babe Ruth the year he hit 60 home runs? Of course it does — and he was thrilled. The past is there to browse — not just to study, not just to research, but to dip into and explore.Visiting these old articles is the difference between stills and film.
     Here’s what I mean: in a book, especially a textbook or encyclopedia, the focus is on an event: Pearl Harbor, or the day Ruth hit his 60th, or the inferno of the Hindenberg. That is like a still shot — you look at the moment itself, stopped in time. But when you page through the articles leading up to, and past, an event you see moment by moment change, as it happened. Instead of the event you see the flow of experience and time. And you control it, you have the gears of the time machine — for you can linger, leap, or double back. You can walk through history as it happened. I know schools use Web Quests — but I think they should have Web Strolls — pick a subject of interest (say Ruth in 1927) and ramble through articles about it as they were published at the time. Let the newspaper be a historical site, a kind of print national park, in which you are the reenactor — the kid at breakfast each morning seeing what the Bambino did last night. Jump into the time stream, instead of collecting the stamp album of isolated facts. I’d love to hear from any teacher or librarian who tries it.


  1. I’ve spent the better part of the last four years (only a slight exaggeration) reading the historical NYTimes–an incredible resource for all of us. So many smaller and worldwide newspapers are digitized as well, and they’re so rich in time and place–what happens when the newspapers are gone?

  2. Leda: For your McCarthy research? What has led you on that journey?