I have been spending a few days looking at one of the important early postwar newspapers in Taiwan, 臺灣新生報, using the microfilm collection on the 6th floor Taiwan resource center of the National Taiwan Library (國立中央圖書館臺灣分館). Yesterday, I happened to catch a glimpse of someone viewing some old copies of another important postwar Taiwan paper, 民報, using an online database, which I will offer some comments about below, following a brief opening rant.
I’m not a big fan of microfilm newspapers. The advantages of this medium over providing access to physical copies or bound printed copies are obvious. Among them include: 1) preservation 2) space conservation 3) the ability to zoom 4) ability to print zoomed in articles from microfilm machines onto various sizes of paper, etc.
However, from the point of view of the historian, the disadvantages soon become apparent: unlike the bound printed copies of, for example, 中央日報, 申報, or 大公報 that I can find in various libraries, which sometimes shrink the original size of the newspaper such that the characters in the articles are barely legible – it is actually possible to browse these through these collections quite fast. It is in fact faster to turn the pages of a book and scan a page of a newspaper for interesting articles than it is to operate the knob of a microfilm machine and zoom in and out on interesting looking pieces.
More importantly, the higher contrast of black text on the printed white of paper makes the experience of looking at bound volumes far more pleasant than a microfilm machine. With the exception of some digital microfilm readers that artificially boost the contrast, the vast majority of microfilm readers I have used in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and the United States are extremely hard on the eyes. If you have to sit at the reader for 4-10 hours, with some short breaks, for even a few days in a row, the impact on one’s eyes is noticeable. The sick yellow background (or black with white text, as the default is for many newspapers I viewed in Korea’s national library, hardly much better) of the microfilm reader, desperately trying to transfer light to the viewer through its lenses always seems to fall below the expectations of my eyes, which yearn to look at real paper, or even the greater contrast of a computer screen!
Digital databases of newspapers are always welcome. In addition to the power of database searching, they offer some of the benefits of both paper bound and microfilm collections but also some more serious defects. It is not all one glorious march towards progress. In my experience, I have found that digital newspaper collections (as well as many library OPAC databases and other online resources) often are designed by people that appear to greatly underestimate the importance of browsing. It isn’t just about what is there in that article or even on that page; historians often want to know what can be found near that article, page, or issue. Sometimes we aren’t looking for a single article about a single topic, but trying to get a feel for the kinds of things being written on the days and weeks surrounding a particular historical event. It is all part of the task of surveying the discursive environment of a time or place.
Now, having made these comments, let me turn to the database I discovered completely by chance yesterday: 舊版報紙資訊網. Read on below the fold…