The heartbreaking farewell

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Earlier today I spent about four hours researching my latest book project inside the Sports Illustrated library on the 32nd floor of the Time Life Building. It’s a place I consider to be my editorial home. Over the course of the past decade, through seven book projects, I’ve probably spent, oh, 200 hours inside the library, digging through files, photocopying clips, combing through yellowed Sports Illustrateds from decades past. I wish I were a good enough writer to properly explain the awesomeness of the SI library, but I’m not. What I can say is it’s a sports researcher’s dream; a place where one can find detailed clip files on everyone from J.R. Richard to Neil Clabo to Earl Jones to Rebecca Lobo to Dave Fleming (the Mariner) and Dave Fleming (the writer). There is nowhere like it in the world. Nowhere even close to being like it in the world.

Alas, in a few weeks it will die.

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The Sports Illustrated offices are moving downtown; a case (I assume) of a changed business and a changed business model. Space will be reduced; offices will be sliced. The library—my library—will vanish. Forever.

I feel like I’m losing a brother. That’s no exaggeration. I. Feel. Like. I’m. Losing. A. Brother. I also feel as if I’m losing a part of me; a part of what I love about journalism. I 100-percent understand why SI is likely wise to move. It’s a different game in 2015 than it was in, say, 1995. The king of sports magazines remains the king of sports magazines, but that doesn’t mean what it once did. Everything today is about digital; about instant buzz. The idea of sitting down on your couch and taking an hour to pour through a seven-page Evander Holyfield feature is one of the distant past. Give us 140 characters, and make them quick. Hell, a few weeks ago a young sports fan asked me if Sports Illustrated still exists in print. My verbal reply, “Of course.” My mental reply, “Fuuuuuuck.”

Back when I was a Sports Illustrated staffer, I’d devote free time to sneaking into the library and feeding my curiosity. I wonder what Ken Griffey, Sr. was like with the Reds? Were George Foster’s sideburns as cool as I imagine? I’d sure love to read some profiles of Jack Tatum. Of Joe Niekro. Of Stump Mitchell. Of Tony Casillas. They were all there. All you had to do was crank a handle and open the aisle of your choice. The folders—red, with yellow or white labels—gave you the name and dates. You’d open one and find anywhere from two to 500 neatly trimmed newspaper and magazine stories. The articles could be from last week; they also could be from 60 years ago. Magic, man. Just … magic.

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The best part? The librarians. There was no better gossip spot than the SI library. I’d show up, sit across from Joy or Taj or Linda and hear the latest news. Who was dating who in the office. What Madonna’s new song sounded like. Sex. Love. Books. Politics. Pop. Rap. Restaurants. Deaths. On and on—just blissful banter with blissful people. The library was, quite often, the place to be. It truly was.

When I left today, I snapped some photos, took a sad breath, turned off the light and walked slowly away from bliss. I’ve been told much, if not all, of the library will be preserved at on offsite somewhere. I hope this is true. A decade ago, the same company took Time Magazine’s library and leveled it.

Hey, it’s a new age, right? Modern. Sleek. Technological. iPhones and Snapchat and Instagram photos. We’re better communicators than our predecessors; better at documenting the world than ever before.

Somehow, though, we’ve misplaced the one thing that allows us to gauge the present.

Our appreciation of the past.

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23 thoughts on “The heartbreaking farewell”

  1. Very sad. As Howard Beck noted on twitter, someone with $$ and a love of this stuff should buy it to save it. Wish that was me.

      1. Yeah, but those libraries would need $$$ to store it, $$$ to catalog it, $$$ to preserve it, $$$ to display it, $$$ to digitize it… and far too few libraries these days have $$$ for ANYTHING. 🙁

  2. TIME (or whatever remnant of that entity which owns the SI Vault) understands there are cheaper locations in America than Manhattan where they can store this stuff, don’t they?

  3. Okay, yeah, there’s been a culture-wide shift from print to digital. That doesn’t mean history is dead.

    My recent B/R piece on Junior Seau was enlightened by a great 1993 profile of him done by Jill Lieber Steeg for…wait for it…Sports Illustrated ( My profile of draft prospect Jake Kumerow would have been much poorer if not for Gerald Holland’s 1958 SI story on Kumerow’s biological great-grandparents ( Whenever I recall a story that shaped my formative years (, I pull it up and re-read.

    I’m sure going through the actual SI library is an amazing tactile and personal experience, but the online SI Vault is an extraordinary resource—and instead of being under lock and key, available only to employees or friends of the outlet, it’s free and instant and available to everyone everywhere all the time.

    The treasure trove you describe could and should be saved, but let’s not pretend these darn kids and their computers have killed sportswriting history. If the SI Library were the only place these stories were available, THEN they’d be dead to history.

      1. Darn.

        Well, to my point, that 80% of material has been zero percent available to 99.9999% of humanity this whole time. Let’s hope it’s donated to a publicly accessible library and/or digitized, so it can be widely read and appreciated.

    1. Heh. University libraries are deaccessioning journals as fast as they can. Heaven help us if JSTOR ever decides to call it quits.

    2. I’m sure there are, speaking as an academic library director in NYC. But by and large, we cannot afford to! Taking in large special collections is a hugely expensive endeavor, costing processing time, climate-controlled storage space, staffing time, and more. My own library’s archives are bursting at the seams, and we’ve had to temporarily halt accepting new collections, while we evaluate what we have. K

  4. As a PhD who has extensive experience in online searches, the destruction of primary archival material is a mistake. Why? 1) No online search engine is 100% reliable. 2) Many of those articles are not indexed (not all, presumably, are from SI). 3) Articles placed in folders may be there for reasons of “association” that are lost in digital searches. EXAMPLE: Satchel Paige played for the Baltimore Black Sox in 1930. A search for Paige and the Black-Sox yields no photos. However, a newspaper reporter spelled Paige as Page. A search for “Page” and 1930 and Black-Sox shows us a photo of him in a Black Sox uniform, with Mule Suttles, as an unexpected bonus. A reference librarian would have filed the photo under Page. A digital search engine yields no results.

    1. Exactly. This is a travesty of the “modern” world in which we live. The Monuments Men saved art throughout Europe from Nazis, now SI just going to chuck out 75 years of clippings?

  5. Everything should be digitized before destruction from the library. That way it is saved for use. A grant or set of donations could have paid for the preservation of the information in digitized form. The way sports makes money these days that could easily have been gathered just from current players chipping in meal money.

    If that library is destroyed and not digitized, then the people responsible are luddites who fail to understand what they’re doing.

  6. I too am sad about the demise of special libraries and their collections, and I hope someone has taken steps to preserve this resource. But I wish the author had recognized the librarians for more than just their ability to gossip. They built this collection, organized it, maintained it, and used it to deliver the best information possible to the researchers and writers of SI. With any luck, the current librarians will be moving to the new space and continuing these contributions, which are so important to the high quality of the magazine.

  7. I just read this via a link from the Guardian (UK), of all places. Rather than an academic li8brary, the collection belongs in a sports library. There’s one here in LA that was funded with part of the surplus from the 1984 Olympic Games. (Disclosure: I’m a retired librarian, who once had a temporary job cataloging that library.)

  8. Tragic. And sad that it is so hard to find a print copy of SI; and that once it’s found it’s virtually a sliver of its former self. The writing is still top-notch.

  9. The sports library based in Los Angeles and funded by LA84 Foundation would be the perfect repository for this library. Such a shame if access is lost to such a famous library.

  10. Hi:

    Great read, but really sad news to see this collection slipping away. As for your writing skills (you mention wanting to be a better writer), you could start with “Who was dating ***whom** in the office” and…was an F-bomb really necessary? Seems awfully jarring.

  11. Jeff,

    Hardest hitting line in your piece. “I’ve been told much, if not all, of the library will be preserved at on offsite somewhere…” I too hope this is true, but alas, unless the librarians are kept on staff and push hard to keep the archive on someone’s radar it will be a tough battle. Was a nice read. Thank you.
    Laura Lucas
    Big Picture Research

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