US & World

Yearbooks No Longer 2 Good 2 Be 4 Gotten

A USS Intrepid yearbook from 1962 where a photo of Sen. John McCain appears.
A USS Intrepid yearbook from 1962 where a photo of Sen. John McCain appears.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Internet has taken a toll on print media, from newspapers and magazines to the telephone book. Now university yearbooks are also taking a hit. A growing number of universities are no longer publishing the annual picture books.

The University of Virginia is very big on tradition. Students here don't use the word "campus," because the school's founder, Thomas Jefferson, preferred the word "grounds." The most popular dorm rooms on grounds are tiny chambers built in 1820, heated only by a fireplace.

"There are so many traditions that when you come in, half of the orientation period is learning what they are," professor and UVA alum Larry Sabato says.

So it came as a shock when the university learned its student-run yearbook, which had been published since 1888, could no longer cover its costs. In a survey, fewer than half the student leaders thought the yearbook should be saved — a view shared by senior Patrick O'Grady.

"It's a shame to see it die, but I wouldn't have bought one anyway. I only know probably about 1 percent of our class, so who wants to see pictures of people you don't even remember?"

"Everything is so technological that people just don't have a desire for a 400-page book that's going to sit on a shelf and collect dust."

Michelle Burch was last year's co-editor. She says the staff tried to generate interest — sending e-mails, handing out flyers, even putting ads on Facebook.

"When we realized that we couldn't even get people to come and take pictures, there's no way people are going to buy a book that they're not in," she says.

At other universities, the story is much the same. Rich Stoebe is with yearbook publisher Jostens. He says about a thousand colleges still print a yearbook. That's down from about 2,400 in 1995. But Stoebe doesn't blame the Internet.

"Virtually every high school and K-12 school prints a yearbook of some type, even though online social networking has been around for a number of years," Stoebe says.

Instead, he suggests the economy is a factor, with books costing up to $100. Also, students feel less loyal to graduating classes that are bigger and more diverse than ever before.

Whatever the reason, the decline of college yearbooks upsets many who love history. Whitney Spivey is a grad student at the University of Missouri, where the yearbook folded in 2006. She spent all four of her undergraduate years working on the yearbook at Virginia.

"Every book is kind of like a little time capsule, and the hair styles change, and the fashion changes, and there are social movements, there are wars," she says. "At UVA, women and minorities are incorporated into university life, and you see this sort of progression of time and history, and I think it's just interesting to look at."

And some yearbooks have become quite valuable, because they contain an early poem by Edgar Alan Poe, drawings by William Faulkner or a picture of the young Brad Pitt. There's even a company called that's put thousands of old yearbooks online and charges people to search. So why not skip the publisher and put today's college yearbooks on a Web site in the first place?

Kelly Furnas advises the yearbook at Virginia Tech. "When we're interviewing students who are applying for editor of the yearbook, we actually ask them, 'In a world of MySpace and Facebook, why is a yearbook still relevant?'" she says. "Their answers are very telling. First they say, 'Who uses MySpace?' and I think that's important. No matter how popular an electronic service may be at this point in time, its existence can be somewhat fleeting."

And, of course, you can't handwrite best wishes in the back of a Web site.

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