The Times Morgue Packs Up and Ships Out

Mr. Roth likewise praised the serendipity that occurs only when one digs through clips or photo contact sheets. He once discovered a set of unseen photographs of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock—not in the legendary guitarist’s folder, but on a contact sheet mostly taken up by shots of the festival crowd. In August 1969, an apparently unhip clerk had labeled the back of the sheet “Jim Hendricks, rock and roll performer.”

The files have also yielded a picture of Pete Seeger at age 2, a June 1921 shot in the folder of his father, music professor Charles Seeger, and an engagement photo of Diane Arbus.

The clippings include stories that have never made it into any database, including ProQuest. Although ProQuest contains nearly 130 years’ worth of late-edition stories, it doesn’t include the early editions, which were clipped and filed as they came out. The files also contain some stories that made it into galleys but were never published. “We are literally the only copies in existence,” Mr. Roth said.

In another room with boxes and papers strewn about, there are the advance obituaries, literally under lock and key.

Other documents include newsroom copy schedules from the 1960’s. From Nov. 22, 1963, there is a record of the frantic effort to cover the John F. Kennedy assassination. “From a historic standpoint, these are pretty incredible,” Mr. Roth said. “You really see the inner workings of the paper on major events.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, the folders were called into duty as the paper put together pieces on the World Trade Center attacks—especially with many of the T1 lines down that day. “These redundant systems are here if there is something that happens,” Mr. Roth said.

And a basement full of newspaper still makes newspaper people feel better. “You’ll find a lot of sentiment for its own sake,” Mr. Siegal said. “There is a certain generational sentiment that is overly oblivious to the electronic facts of life. They think the clips ought to be there because the clips ought to be there, because the clips ought to be there.”

As they ought! “Anybody who wants to understand the 20th century should take a look at the New York Times newspaper morgue,” novelist Nicholson Baker said. (Officially, the morgue isn’t open to the public, according to Mr. Roth.) Mr. Baker has been on a mission for several years to save physical copies of books and newspapers from being discarded in the name of microfilm or online databases.

“Even though it has had several weedings,” Mr. Baker said of the Times morgue, “it’s still a monstrous, messy marsh of information.”

Is it all going to fit in the Herald Tribune’s cellar? “This argument just came up literally a half-hour before you came here,” Mr. Roth said. “How do you fit a camel through the eye of a needle?”

Mr. Roth said he doesn’t expect any major purging to accompany the move. For one thing, he said, there isn’t time to go through the clips and make decisions about what to cull.

“It’s been a paring-down of the operation for 20 years,” Mr. Roth said. “It never seems to die.”

 

In fact, it keeps being fed. Though the clipping ended as a matter of policy 17 years ago, Mr. Roth adds more articles to the files when he sees fit, on subjects he deems worthy.

Recently, Mr. Roth felt it was necessary to add clips to the following folders: Herschell Gordon Lewis, the splatter-film director; Jack H. Jacobs, the Medal of Honor winner and NBC military analyst; and Art Clokey, the creator of Gumby.

The Times Morgue Packs Up and Ships Out