MAXWELL:  Yearbooks fade in the computer age

12/8/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


aAs the year 2000 approaches, what are memories worth to America’s first generation of cybernauts? Not very much, if we are to believe a recent New York Times article lamenting the slow death of the college yearbook.

Many colleges, along with some high schools, no longer publish yearbooks. Has college life changed so much that the yearbook, that hard-bound archive of nostalgia, has become a modern dinosaur?

Yes, Mark Kruea, director of communications at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina, told the Times: “I think yearbooks, although still appreciated, don’t supply the instant gratification the 18- to 21-year-old student is used to feeling. Thanks to computers, the delay between beginning and ending a project, whether it’s research or pleasure, has been compressed to almost nothing.”

For me, the underlying theme of the article is not so much about the passing of the yearbook as it is about the evolving worth of memories themselves and about how the remembrance of things past is being kept alive in the computer age.

When thinking of my own school days, I smile. But I want to cry at the same time. I smile because I fondly remember my friends, teachers, football games, pranks and tortured moments outside the principal’s office. I want to cry because I no longer have a record of those happy moments. My yearbooks were destroyed. When my grandfather (with whom I lived and in whose home I had stored the yearbooks for safekeeping) died two years ago, my brother rented the house, and his tenants threw away my yearbooks _ the record of a large part of my childhood.

And now, I and other people of my and older generations are being told that our yearbooks are so much sentimentality. Today’s America, which celebrates youth, has precious little time for an anachronism that captures life so slowly and deliberately.

Indeed, publishers report that student interest in yearbooks is dwindling. For years, the University of Memphis, for example, enjoyed between 1,200 and 1,500 sales. This year, purchases dropped to 400.

Sales at many schools are slipping because officials use outdated marketing. Such problems notwithstanding, administrators say that the college experience itself has changed. No longer a place unto itself, today’s campus more closely mirrors larger society. At Rochester Institute of Technology, its once popular annual, the Techila, ceased publication in 1994, because students there “are very focused on their academic areas with very little time for extracurricular activities,” the director of the Center for Campus Life said. “Working on a yearbook is a long-tern commitment.”

On some campuses, a cult of ethnicity has arisen and has made the annual both tool and a victim of balkanization, where blacks, Hispanics and other ethnic groups publish separate yearbooks. In such a climate of confrontation, a campuswide yearbook is cruel joke.

At commuter schools, like the University of South Florida in Tampa, where the average age is 27, students feel too disconnected from campus life to preserve their memories in a yearbook. USF, with more than 36,000 students, has fewer than 4,000 students living on campus. Separate colleges, such as the College of Medicine, publish separate yearbooks. USF’s campuswide annual died in the 1970s.

Still other schools, instead of scrapping their yearbooks, have changed with the times _ sending campus memories into cyberspace or to some other medium. The University of Memphis, for instance, is considering CD-ROM or a video or a magazine. The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Me., already has gone high-tech. After all, methods of preserving memories must change with the times.

Not necessarily, say yearbook sponsors at traditionally black colleges and universities. At Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, the two black colleges I attended, the yearbook is more popular than ever.

“Interest is still high on black campuses because the yearbook is seen as a touchstone back to the college, their way of connecting with their friends and people and experiences,” said professor Rodney Blackwell, yearbook sponsor at Wiley, a Methodist College with an enrollment of about 600. “Our students at Wiley truly value these memories and love to see themselves and their friends in pictures. I also think it has a lot to do with campus size and intimacy. I’ll bet that most of the smaller institutions, say, under 5,000, still have their yearbooks. Students at many of the big schools don’t feel connected.”

Jostens Inc., the country’s biggest yearbook publisher, confirms Blackwell’s observation: Most smaller campuses have retained high interest in yearbooks.

I have no empirical proof, but I believe that today’s young people will live to regret their devaluation of remembrance. Oh, sure, times have changed, and the computer has given us fancy ways to harness our experiences. Human nature, however, has not changed. Several deans on larger campuses with whom I spoke said that after graduation, many students who did not buy yearbooks call back asking for one.

“Everybody wants to remember,” a Bethune-Cookman dean said. “Even in these modern times, the yearbook is a living treasure of the past.” A colleague here at the St. Petersburg Times said it best: “Just one written paragraph in an annual can capture a time, a spirit and a snapshot of a friendship or acquaintance.”

I agree absolutely. And I regret more than ever that I never again will see the images in my high school yearbooks.