A NYTimes Taxonomist Explores the Newspaper’s Archives

From an Inside the Times story by Ian Prasad Philbrick headlined “A Times Taxonomist Explores the Archives”:

The end of the year is an opportunity to look back and reflect. So today we’re bringing you something in that spirit: an interview with Jennifer Parrucci, a senior taxonomist at The Times, about the interesting things she has found digging through the paper’s 171-year archives.

Ian: What exactly is a taxonomist?

Jennifer: Yeah, no one knows what I do. They’re like, “You’re a taxidermist?” I make sure our current articles can be easily searched and categorized. That work grew out of The New York Times Index, which is a reference book of every person, organization, location and event the paper has written about. It started being published regularly in 1913.

For example, if I search for the first mention of John F. Kennedy in the paper I can find, I get a three-sentence story about him returning from England, where his father was the U.S. ambassador, in 1938. I can find it because someone working on the index that year thought, He seems important enough. I’ll add his name.

I’ve also created a massive spreadsheet of fun gems I’ve found combing through the archives, mostly as a passion project. You go in and sometimes find things serendipitously, from the serious to the ridiculous, like an attempted robber who got caught because he stopped for lemonade or a man who only ate pickles and crackers and ended up in the hospital. I also help reporters looking for old coverage on specific events, like April Fools’ Day or the Academy Awards.

Searching must get complicated as events — and the paper’s coverage — evolve.

It does. World War I wasn’t indexed as World War I, because the archivists back then didn’t know there would be another. So you have to think, OK, what would it have been called? That’s one thing about the archives: Things change. Language changes. We used words we don’t use today. We framed things in ways we don’t now.

You can also see how our journalistic standards have changed. My favorite archival project I’ve done was to collaborate on two books: Cats of the Times and Dogs of The Times. I got to go find every dog and cat story in the archives. I don’t know that a story about a cat running through a church would make page 2 of the paper today, but it did in 1897.

It’s almost like you’re describing a different newspaper. Have you come across anything particularly strange?

Before Adolph Ochs bought The Times in 1896, some of the paper’s coverage was a little dicey. There was a lot of society coverage. It was more partisan. It also used to report very seriously on ghost stories and other paranormal activity. One in-depth article, from 1870, is called the “True History of the 27th Street Goblin.”

I also keep a collection of my favorite absurd front-page stories. Back when the people assembling the paper had to lay out the articles by hand, sometimes there would be leftover space. So you’ll occasionally find short, strange stories on the front page that were there to fill it. In 1854, there was one about how a live scorpion was found on a piece of driftwood off a steamer boat in Cincinnati.

The Times has TimesMachine, an online archive of issues that we’ve used to cover historic events like Queen Elizabeth II’s death in The Morning this year. What is the value of making the archives publicly available?

Context. The day men first landed on the moon in 1969, for example, a story about the Chappaquiddick car accident involving Senator Ted Kennedy was also on the front page. So was a story about the first man to row solo across the Atlantic. If you couldn’t flip through digital pages, you wouldn’t know those stories appeared next to each other. You wouldn’t see the ads that filled the paper. You wouldn’t see what was happening in the culture at the time. You wouldn’t see the photos. And I don’t know any other paper with the breadth of archives we have.

Have you stumbled across any fun Christmas-related stories?

There’s one I love from 1900 where these little boys set a bear trap for Santa, but they ended up trapping their cousin instead. There’s another from 1973 where a group called the Ethical Culture Society set up a meet and greet with Frankenstein’s monster for kids, as an alternative to sitting on Santa Claus’s lap. There’s also one that was in our cat book from 1935 where a child in Boston attempted to mail the family cat to Santa. The cat was returned, alive.

More about Jennifer: She grew up in New York and studied library science at Pratt Institute. Her father did archive-related work for The Times for 40 years. She remembers attending Bring Your Daughter to Work days at the paper’s old West 43rd Street building, where kids could create mock newspapers.

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