The Periodical Room

The RoomIn the 1920s, according to the sign outside the heavy door, DeWitt Wallace spent countless hours in the high-ceilinged sanctum within, reading and condensing magazine articles. This was how he filled Reader’s Digest, the unorthodox little magazine he and his wife, Lila, had launched in 1922, their only child. At first, they didn’t bother with advertising or writers or illustrators. It was all about circulation, which by 1946 reached about eight million. Reader’s Digest became the most widely read magazine in the world.

I brought my magazine class of 14 undergraduates to this Periodical Room of the main New York Public Library building on 5th Avenue. It’s an awesome space, although there were no magazines in sight. Instead, almost every wooden chair lined up on both sides of long tables was occupied by someone working on a MacBook. My students sized up the place in a jiffy, and with my bemused permission left the room and the building for free time in the city. With their iPhones in hand, they had better things to do than waste time in this silent tomb of twentieth century print culture.

But I took the road less traveled by. I asked at the window for copies of some magazines from 1967. Sorry, the man said, we keep only recent issues here. He sent me walking down a long hallway to the room with old periodicals. There, researchers at tables and microfilm machines were digging their gopher holes into history, but still I didn’t see any magazines. I asked at the desk for The Saturday Evening Post and Look from ancient times when Joan Didion and George Leonard were writing about Haight-Ashbury for those magazines.

First, I needed to fill out the form for a library card. Done. Then I needed to fill out a request for the bound copies of Look for the years I wanted. Done. It would be up from the vaults . . . in about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, here’s the microfilm for the Saturday Evening Post issues I wanted. Sorry, none of the microfilm machines were available in this room. I was directed to yet another room down more long hallways.

Have my students ever used a microfilm machine? I doubt it. It took a while to get that giant toaster working. The Post, once the most popular magazine in America, was running some pretty good articles in ’67 on a fire-fight in Vietnam, by an American soldier who was in the middle of it, and on the Mamas and the Papas. The magazine would be dead within two years.

Back in the old periodical room, four very heavy volumes of Look had arrived. I found a full-page ad from the ad bureau of the Magazine Publishers Association. Here was the desperate pitch from America’s last great general interest magazines: “The magazine is a treasury of contemporary ideas and information. It is traditional in its consistent quality from one issue to the next. It is modern in its treatment of an infinite variety of subjects. It is influential in its continuous introduction of new thoughts, styles and trends.” A photograph of a young woman who might have just arrived in Manhattan right out of Sarah Lawrence, thoughtfully drinking something dark through a straw at an outdoor table. “Her presence creates a stir,” the caption says. “Conversations pause. Activities cease.”

The conversations resumed, the activities picked up, the magazines died, time marched on. What was that about? I went back to the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room to contemplate, once more, what David Sumner’s book calls The Magazine Century. The majestic room has thirteen murals of the great magazine publishing houses in Manhattan, part of the room’s restoration in 1983 underwritten by DeWitt Wallace legacy funds.

These were grand buildings, the Puck Building, Harper’s, the Look Building, Herald Square, Time-Life Building, the Hearst Building. Some are still around, re-purposed. Time Inc. has moved downtown. The Art Deco Hearst Building has become the base of a dazzling 44-floor glass tower clad in diamond-shaped facets. We would hear from the head of magazine marketing in that building the next day, and the students would be given good news about Hearst’s peak profits last year, from using multiple platforms nimbly and targeting native advertising.

Magazines, it seems, will survive. But something troubles me about how sluggish I felt trying to dig into the great magazines of the past. I don’t blame my students for getting out of the New York Public Library as fast as they could. It’s a beautiful building, but in their world it’s a dead tomb of dead books and magazines that aren’t even out in the open. As the man at Hearst would tell us, with an iPhone you don’t want advertising or irrelevant content. You want what you want, when you want it. How many “snap”? he asked, meaning Snapchat. All 14 raised their hands. And how many regularly read magazines? A tentative pause, and only about half the hands went up. And this was for a class called “The Magazine: Past, Present and Future.”

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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